Posts Tagged ‘father’

painting my father

May 1, 2016

0135dc05891c54a8babc06ded1d0dcdd

Jackson Pollock

 

Note: Some of you will have read this before, at ccesf.org or in mary’zine #54, March 2012. But I shared it in a memoir writing workshop, where it was very well received, and I thought it deserved another look. I wish I could include the painting itself, but it’s buried somewhere in the stacks of paintings in my closet.

I’m in a painting workshop. I’ve been process (intuitive) painting since 1979, and one thing about process is that you’re always a beginner. You don’t decide what to paint, and you don’t try to make a pretty or interesting picture. It’s all about the experience you go through when you’re painting.

Sometimes it seems like I’m doomed to paint the same thing over and over again: me, Death, my immediate family. This time, I’ve started a painting in which Death is holding me above his head while he wades waist deep in the Sea of Disappearance. When I want to paint lots of anonymous bodies floating in the sea, my teacher Barbara asks the simple question: “Do you know any of them?” and I’m like, Nooooo… I am so sick of painting my family!

But I know what I have to do: When creation tells you to jump, you ask “How high?” So I paint Mom, Dad, baby brother (who died), and a cross with the name McKenney on it. Instead of the romantic-sounding Sea of Disappearance, it’s a rather pedestrian version: the Green Bay of Disappearance or the Menominee River of Disappearance—a small cove off the big waters of Death, Upper Michigan division. There’s no escaping the family ties.

It goes well, but when I think I’m done, Barbara persists with her pesky questions. What more could I do? It comes to me that there are strings of matter unraveling from the bodies. I realize I’m willing to paint death as long as the bodies are peacefully mummified and whole, but the thought of their actual disintegration strikes me hard.

Painting the strings streaming out of my father’s body, I get increasingly irritated. At first, I locate the source of irritation outside me. A new painter, an art therapist, is humming. I find that distracting under the best of circumstances, but now the erratic, low hum is stretching my nerves as thin as the strings of matter I’m painting. I finish them and then paint little cuts and splits on the body itself, the beginnings of disintegration from within.

I’m getting more and more agitated. I’m painting next to an open window, and a bee flies in and then can’t find its way back out. It just buzzes and buzzes and beats its little body against the upper part of the window. How stupid is nature sometimes!, I think, as I transfer my irritation to this innocent creature. Can’t you figure it out, go down, go down! The buzzing and the humming together are now like a discordant symphony in my brain as I keep painting the little cuts and fissures in the flesh. I think of the famous story in which a patient of Jung’s is telling him her dream about a scarab (beetle). While she’s telling the dream, an actual scarab taps on the window—thus illustrating (or precipitating?) Jung’s theory of synchronicity. So I try to see that the buzzing bee is my version of the scarab and that it and the humming art therapist are forces of nature teaming up to force the expression of the deep irritation in me that is covering something more meaningful.

I finally go and find a paper cup and a book, with which I capture the bee and throw it out the window. Would that the buzz within me (or the art therapist without me) could be dispatched so easily. Returning to my painting, I realize that I feel physically weak, as if I’m in anaphylactic shock. There’s no physical explanation for this. Plus, the irritation is now more like rage. It’s a debilitating combination.

Finally, I see where all this feeling is coming from. My father had multiple sclerosis, and I had “known” for a long time that the disease made him feel weak and angry and out of control. But I had never put myself in his shoes, never considered what it might feel like—not only the symptoms of the disease, but to be deprived of his physicality, masculine control over the family, ability to earn a living, and freedom to go out drinking for 3 days at a time with an army buddy. I’ve painted my father hundreds of times but had never felt so attuned to him, on a psychocellular level, so to speak.

(I also wonder what might have happened to the family if he hadn’t gotten sick but had continued in his alcoholism: He had already put his fist through a window in the front door when my mother locked him out. But that’s another story.)

So I keep painting. As the body becomes covered with the little cuts and unravelings, I’m startled to see that it isn’t disintegrating, it’s coming alive! The body seems to be jumping off the page. I realize I’m painting (and feeling) the electrical nerve impulses that are another symptom of MS. Richard Pryor, who also had MS, once talked about the humiliation and physical discomfort of having no control over his body; his arm would just shoot up, and there was nothing he could do about it. My father had some control over his arms, but his leg (the one with the shrapnel in it from WWII) would start shaking and jumping until he had to beat it into stillness.

As I start the next painting, I know I have to paint my father big, in “flesh” color—not the black, somewhat abstract form I usually paint. I can’t remember ever feeling so resistant to paint an image. I plod between the paper and the paint table and back again. I paint the big strokes of yellowy-pink doggedly, unenthusiastically. I can only wonder what joys await me further down the line in this painting. Ha! Finally I have this massive, fleshy, almost life-size body in front of me, and I feel like I’ve painted a wall I can’t penetrate.

Barbara helps me see that I have to get inside the body, which is the last place I want to go. I was used to painting all kinds of things on the outside of bodies, but I’d never painted insides. I finally paint big flapping openings in the chest and head, to which I add organs with tubes and veins and unnameable inner workings. I feel so intense painting them! A medical illustrator I’m not, but it feels so good to invent my heart, my brain (I mean, his heart, his brain) as I go. But my upper back hurts with all the tension and intensity, I’m barely breathing. And I wonder where all this is going, how much I’m going to have to feel, how I’m going to get safely back to the shores of stillness and my own separate identity. I feel like I want to beat these feelings back the way my father beat his jumpy leg. That self-hatred, hatred of the body and its betrayals. Fierce ambivalence about the family and its betrayals.

At the end of the workshop, I tell this story in the group, and someone suggests that I’ve been storing these feelings in my body for years. While painting, I was afraid that I was somehow “getting” the feelings from my father, but if so, I “got” them a long time ago. I’ve spent most of my life being afraid that I would get MS too, or that I would become an alcoholic. Anything, I think, not to acknowledge my true legacy from him, an exquisite sensitivity to pain and circumstance.

When I got home that night I was exhausted. I went straight to bed, and when I woke up half an hour later, my whole body was pulsing, even the soles of my feet. I felt like I had rappelled my way down inside a deep cavern, in a journey to the center of my father, myself.

 

Image8 (1)

William Henry McKenney

1920–1969

R.I.P.

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.

 

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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.)

merry’zine #54: March 2012

March 10, 2012

You’ll notice something a little different this month. I’m coming in like a lion, who knows how I’ll go out. On a whim, yes, I’m a whimsical lion, I’m changing the name of this whatever-it-is to merry’zine, maybe forever, maybe not. Why must we be merry only at Christmastime? And who’s truly merry then anyway?


 
 

painting letters

On my 49th birthday, I wrote my first Painting Letter to my friends in the teacher training at the Painting Experience studio in San Francisco. After a few months I expanded the scope of the Letters to include any other painters who wanted to contribute. I’m only bringing this up because I wanted to show you the cool drawing that Terry made for the February 2001 issue. And I wanted to show it to you for two reasons: (1) So you can see what a cool drawer (and person) Terry is, and (2) So there’s visible proof that I have taken a good picture at least once in my life.

And that’s not the only walk down memory lane I’ve taken lately….

who paints?

I was doing the unthinkable the other day—sorting and filing the bills and other papers on my desk, the earliest of which were from November 2010—when I came across the manuscript for Who Paints?  I had written it in, oh, the ‘90s, I think, when I thought the world needed another book about process painting. I no longer had an electronic copy of the manuscript, except possibly on some no-longer-readable disk—maybe wait 1,000 years for the Dead Sea Floppy Disk Scrolls to be found and decoded—so, thanks to good old paper, I was able to reread my pearls of wisdom.

I had done quite a lot of editing for M. Cassou, and her publisher, Jeremy Tarcher, had praised my work. I asked MC how he knew what I had done, and she said she had sent him some of her writing that I hadn’t edited. Ah. So I took advantage of the slight name recognition and sent him my manuscript. He said he couldn’t publish it without a section at the end of each chapter with “how-to” tips, in other words, I should turn it into a self-help book instead of a paean to the process. I think I’m pretty good at writing paeans, especially paeans to the process, but I think “how to” in this process is completely pointless, maybe even pointzeroless. So I dropped the idea of getting the book published, and now, 15 or so years later, I’m going to self-aggrandize, I mean, self-publish it by including selected chapters in this merry/mary’zine.

When I reread the manuscript, I discovered that it’s not bad, not bad at all… but I found myself bored by the expository parts (“What is process painting?”). I perked up when I read some of the stories about actual painting, so I started putting those chapters aside. Below is the first one that grabbed me.

 

Daddy and me, 1949 (I was 3).

My cartoon of those early days.

painting my father (a Who Paints? excerpt)

Sometimes it seems like I’m doomed to paint the same thing over and over again: me, Death, my immediate family. This time, I’ve started a painting in which Death is holding me above his head while he wades waist deep in the Sea of Disappearance. When I want to paint lots of anonymous bodies floating in the sea, Barbara asks the simple question: “Do you know any of them?” and it’s like, Nooooo… I am so sick of painting my family!

But I know what I have to do: When creation tells you to jump, you ask “How high?” So I paint Mom, Dad, baby brother (who died), and a cross with the name McKenney on it. Instead of the romantic-sounding Sea of Disappearance, it’s a rather pedestrian version: the Green Bay of Disappearance or the Menominee River of Disappearance—a small cove off the big waters of Death, Upper Michigan division. There’s no escaping the family ties.

It goes well, but when I think I’m done, Barbara persists with her pesky questions. What more could I do? It comes to me that there are strings of matter unraveling from the bodies. I realize I’m willing to paint death as long as the bodies are peacefully mummified and whole, but the thought of their actual disintegration strikes me hard.

Painting the strings streaming out of my father’s body, I get increasingly irritated. At first, I locate the source of irritation outside me. A new painter, an art therapist, is humming. I find that distracting under the best of circumstances, but now the erratic, low hum is stretching my nerves as thin as the strings of matter I’m painting. I finish them and then paint little cuts and splits on the body itself, the beginnings of disintegration from within.

I’m getting more and more agitated. I’m painting next to an open window, and a bee flies in and then can’t find its way back out. It just buzzes and buzzes and beats its little body against the upper part of the window. How stupid is nature sometimes!, I think, as I transfer my irritation to this innocent creature. Can’t you figure it out, go down, go down! The buzzing and the humming together are now like a discordant symphony in my brain as I keep painting the little cuts and fissures in my father’s flesh. I think of the famous story in which a patient of Jung’s is telling him her dream about a scarab (beetle). While she’s telling the dream, an actual scarab taps on the window—thus illustrating (or precipitating) Jung’s theory of synchronicity. So anyway, I try to see that the buzzing bee is my version of the scarab and that it and the humming art therapist are forces of nature teaming up to bring forth the expression of whatever is in me that is driving me crazy.

I finally go and find a paper cup and a book, with which I capture the bee and throw it out the window. Would that the buzz within me (or the art therapist without me) could be dispatched so easily. Returning to my painting, I feel physically weak, as if I’m in anaphylactic shock. There’s no physical explanation for this. Plus, the irritation is now more like rage. It’s a debilitating combination.

Finally, I add 2 + 2 and see where all this feeling is coming from. My father had multiple sclerosis (MS), and I had “known” for a long time that the disease made him feel weak and angry and out of control. But I had never put myself in his shoes, never considered what it might feel like—not only the symptoms of the disease, but to be deprived of his physicality, masculine control over the family, ability to earn a living, and freedom to go out drinking for 3 days at a time. I’ve painted my father hundreds of times but had never felt so attuned to him, on a psychocellular level, so to speak.

(I also wonder what might have happened to the family if he hadn’t gotten sick but had continued in his alcoholism: He had already put his fist through a window when my mother locked him out. But that’s another story.)

So I keep painting. As the body becomes covered with the little cuts and unravelings, I’m startled to see that it isn’t disintegrating, it’s coming alive! The body seems to be jumping off the page. I realize I’m painting (and feeling) the electrical nerve impulses that are another symptom of MS. Richard Pryor (who also had MS) once talked about the humiliation and physical discomfort of having no control over his body; his arm would just shoot up, and there was nothing he could do about it. My father had some control over his arms, but his leg (the one with the shrapnel in it from WWII) would start shaking and jumping until he had to beat it into stillness.

As I start the next painting, I know I have to paint my father big, in “flesh” color—not the black, somewhat abstract form I usually paint. I can’t remember ever feeling so resistant to painting an image. I plod between the paper and the paint table and back again. I paint the big strokes of yellowy-pink doggedly, unenthusiastically. I can only wonder what joys await me further down the line in this painting. Finally I have this massive, fleshy, almost life-size body in front of me, and I feel like I’ve painted a wall I can’t penetrate.

Barbara helps me see that I have to get inside the body, which is the last place I want to go. I was used to painting all kinds of things on the outside of bodies, but I’d never painted insides. I finally paint big flapping openings in the chest and head, through which I can see organs with tubes and veins and unnameable inner workings. I feel so intense painting them! A medical illustrator I’m not, but it feels so good to invent my heart, my brain (I mean, his heart, his brain) as I go. But my upper back hurts with all the tension and intensity, I’m barely breathing. And I wonder where all this is going, how much I’m going to have to feel, how I’m going to get safely back to the shores of stillness and my own separate identity. I feel like I want to beat these feelings back the way my father beat his jumpy leg. That self-hatred, hatred of the body and its betrayals. Fierce ambivalence about the family and its betrayals.

At the end of the workshop, I tell this story in the group, and someone suggests that I’ve been storing these feelings in my body for  years. While painting, I was afraid that I was somehow “getting” the feelings from my father, but if so, I “got” them a long time ago. I’ve spent most of my life being afraid that I would get MS too, or that I would become an alcoholic. Anything, I think, not to acknowledge my true legacy from him, an exquisite sensitivity to pain and circumstance.

When I got home that night I was exhausted. I lay down on the bed, and when I woke up half an hour later, my whole body was pulsing, even the soles of my feet. I felt like I had rappelled my way down inside a deep cavern, in a journey to the center of my father, myself.
 

‘Nam like me

As I’ve mentioned before, my brother-in-law has finally gotten some attention from the VA. He’s now receiving a disability check for his injuries sustained in Vietnam, both physical and mental, and has gotten counseling, surgery, and other perks. He had a follow-up appointment for his recent foot surgery, and he told us about feeling uneasy as the tiny waiting room filled up with other patients, how he’s always looking over his shoulder, needs to sit with his back against the wall in any establishment, etc. The verdict, I gather, is that he’s had some form of PTSD ever since he got out of the Marines some 40 years ago. That could explain a lot, actually.

But as he was talking, I kept thinking, “Fear of closeness, check”; “Fear of being followed or attacked, check”; “Thinking I see something out of the corner of my eye that isn’t there, check.” And I blurted out, “That sounds like my childhood!” I suppose it’s the ultimate sacrilege to compare an American woman’s experiences on the ordinary streets and byways of this country to a combat veteran’s heightened sensitivity and fear acquired in the jungles and deserts of war… but still. I may be an exception, but I have had a low- to medium- to high level of fear (of men specifically) since I was a very young child. I know some of it is based in reality—I was attacked or threatened or coerced sexually several times before I reached adulthood—and some of it comes from that gray area of psychological attunement, which spawns fear in an otherwise benign situation. The psychological parts may have stemmed from my mother’s mistrust of men, as when one of my father’s drunk Army buddies came into my room in the middle of the night and asked if I wanted a drink. I was 4 or 5, and according to my mom, she rushed in there and dragged him out, probably roaring like a mother bear protecting her cub. And I, cub, though I don’t remember the incident, might have learned the lesson, Don’t trust them, in that precise moment. But I didn’t make up the many encounters with lone men in cars slowing down as I trudged home from school down a country road and asking me if I wanted a ride. I don’t know how I knew that their intent was not that of a Good Samaritan, but I was very sensitive to nuances even then. Likewise, one of my sisters still dislikes a certain make of car because when she was out trick-or-treating one Halloween, a man beckoned to her to come up to the car—she expected to be given candy—a “treat”—and he asked her if he could fuck her. Who can downplay the devastating effect of this very common experience on young girls and women?

So why don’t most women experience the symptoms of PTSD that many male war veterans do? I think it’s because we have lived with this reality all our lives. It’s part of the culture, taught in our homes by our own parents, taught in the streets by predators. We understand that we cannot stroll freely through a dark night or a bad neighborhood without paying the price.

Always, this topic makes me defensive, because many or even most women have either not had these experiences or have weighed the negative and the positive and come down on the side of the “few good men” they have married or birthed or know in some other way. So I always have to add that I have known and liked and respected several heterosexual men who are good people, some even great people. And I have known or known of several women who are not good or great people. Those are my disclaimers, and, frankly, I think it’s awfully mature of me to be willing and able to discern the goodness of the good men. In fact, I almost appreciate them overly much because of my generally low expectations—just as many straight women melt when seeing a man pushing a stroller. The bar is that low. I’m sure that the good men greatly outnumber the bad ones. But that doesn’t help me in certain situations: like, in college, walking from Lansing to East Lansing alone, late one Saturday night, because I was afraid of the guys (strangers) I had gotten a ride from. That may have been the most terrifying night of my life, because I felt utterly and completely at the mercy of the men in passing cars. As I trudged along, praying to a nonexistent god, trying to stay in the shadows, trying to walk fast and look inconspicuous, one lone man drove around the block several times, coming up to me repeatedly and asking if I wanted a ride. A bunch of young guys in a car yelled out the windows at me and called me a whore. I just kept pressing on. I was absolutely vulnerable. Since “nothing happened,” I could look back and say, “Oh, they were harmless,” or “I should have just yelled back or firmly and confidently refused the ride,” or never have gone with (or left) the first guys in the first place, or never gone out after dark, everything coming down to what I did wrong. There’s no question I was naive and did do stupid things, like go to a motel with my roommate and two guys we had just met, and as the guys were strategizing in the bathroom, Kathy and I realized what we had gotten ourselves into and made an excuse and got the hell out of there. So I was lucky. And I’m not saying any of those guys were actual rapists. But it was difficult at the time (pre-women’s movement) to negotiate the line between party time and danger. And maybe it still is.

Lest you think that story was just the result of being a vulnerable college girl, I encountered a group of 5 or 6 young men in Golden Gate Park when I was out jogging in broad daylight—in my 30s—who called me a dyke and other threatening endearments, and I held my breath until I was past them and they had given up their little game. Because this is what we learn: to pretend to ignore what’s going on. To endure. One of my sisters had to deal with a car mechanic whose erect penis was sticking out of his jumpsuit as he worked on something under the dashboard of her car, and all she felt she could do was pretend she hadn’t seen it—even questioning her own perception that he was doing it on purpose.

By the way, I don’t think my experiences “made me gay.” From a very early age I was not interested in dolls, hated wearing a dress, loved “boy” games (basketball, football, baseball, building roads in the dirt for little cars; in the fifth grade I loved drawing Ford cars with their spiffy fins and whitewalls). Although I appreciated some of the female characters of the American West, such as Annie Oakley, I was much more taken with the Cisco Kid, Hopalong Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger. I read a lot of Westerns (on both sides of the mythological fence: cowboys/Indians) and other adventure books, especially ones about deep-sea treasure hunts, all with boy heroes. Coincidentally, my mother’s favorite author as a young girl was Zane Grey, a classic writer of Westerns. But when she grew up she put her tomboy past behind her, and I never did. Until I knew there was a “lesbian option,” I longed for a boyfriend, mostly as a form of status, but when I fell in love with a woman it was absolutely amazing, the “real deal”… though in 1965 it was still the love that dared not speak its name. So despite everything else I’ve told you, I did not so much reject men as I realized that my true emotional and spiritual connection is with women. And that has been the greatest blessing of my life.

to hell and back, computer-style

I feel like I’m 100 years old in computer years. I was there in 1970, when I had to keypunch data into a mainline computer as big as a big room. I was there a decade or so later, when I had to learn UNIX on a Sun workstation. My boss wanted to “drag me kicking and screaming into the 20th century,” but I feared he also wanted to replace me with a rudimentary grammar and spell checker; he was easily impressed by technology and just as easily unimpressed by my superior human editing skills. I finally embraced the dying century when I got my first personal Mac and was rewarded by not having to type and retype my writing, then obliterate the words with circles and arrows and X’s and retype again. In the day of The Typewriter, I had fantasized about some form of magic that would allow me to revise and move paragraphs at will, having no idea that it would ever come to pass. The downside of this miracle was having to learn the inner workings of the thing and spend hours or days trying to diagnose problems and wangle solutions out of tech support—unlike, say, when you bought a car or a vacuum cleaner, which were presumed to be used by ordinary people.

Things have gotten much better over the years: Software basically installs itself; warnings and instructions often tell you what to do in almost humanoid language; and there’s no more inserting of foreign bodies containing viruses, as if you were having disk-sex with every computer into which they had been previously inserted.

Still, nothing makes me feel more helpless than trying to fix a computer that has gone awry. In January I had to buy a new MacBook Pro because my old one went black and no amount of coaxing and trying different things could get it to work. All the king’s horses, etc. At 9:30 in the evening I called my sister Barb to see if I could use her computer, because I needed to notify an author and a couple of friends who might need to get hold of me. I had also decided to order a new computer, because I can’t work without it. I had already researched them and knew what I wanted. It wasn’t just the fact that I couldn’t get my old one going—after 3 years the operating system was teetering on the brink of not supporting any new software… so if the machine doesn’t fall apart, they make it so you can’t use it anyway because 10.5.whatever “is no longer supported.” (I like the passive voice there. “Gosh, something must have happened and left 10.5.whatever completely useless”—like the kitty hanging from the ‘hang in there’ branch on a popular poster.)

Before giving in and calling Barb, I had attempted to use my dumb (i.e., not “smart”) cell phone to get online. Considering that it has no trouble pocket-dialing the Internet without my knowledge, it was curiously uncooperative when I actually wanted to get there. That 1 or 2 minutes of (failed) “data usage” ended up costing me $30.

Unfortunately, Barb is not a Mac, whereas I am a McKMac (paddy whack), so it was beyond frustrating to get anything going on her PC. I’ve also been using a trackpad for several years now, and it was an annoyance to have to get used to a mouse again. Worse yet, I had forgotten to bring my close-up glasses. But I managed to get to “iris,” where I checked my e-mail and shot off a few clarion calls to announce my absence on the e-lines… felt like I was announcing my own impending death… and then went to MacConnection to order a new laptop… not that I can afford that expense right now, but when has that ever stopped something expensive from giving up the ghost.

The 17-in. laptop I wanted was not in stock; I e-mailed the company to find out when it would be available, and they replied that it would be 10 days, give-or-take. I couldn’t fathom being without my lif-e-line for that long. Barb generously offered to let me “come and go as I pleased” to use her PC, but it was still a dismal prospect. When I got home that night, it felt so weird. I kept going toward my desk and then remembering. It wasn’t as if I really needed to check Twitter or Stumble Upon anything, but I still felt bereft.

The next night, Barb and I went to dinner at Schussler’s and, oh, as long as I was right there, dropping her off, I might as well go in and check my e-mail. Not much was going on except a notice from something called Keek that had a 36-second video of Adam Carolla doing something or other. It’s odd how the media forms are getting shorter and shorter, I suppose to match our attention spans. If I want to watch a clip of “The Daily Show” or a video of a kitten romping with a crow, and it lasts 7:35 minutes with a 30-second commercial at the beginning, I will usually skip it. It’s a wonder I can still read whole books.

I had ordered the computer and settled in to wait the interminable give-or-take for it to arrive, and so I was amazed to find it sitting on my front porch 2 days later! I was in heaven! I spent 11 straight hours setting it up and reconfiguring my configurations. Found out I also had to buy a new printer, because mine was 10 years old and “no longer supported” (of course). Planned obsolescence has never been so… planned… and yet, strangely, you never hear that term anymore. Also had to buy new Quicken software for the same reason and somehow lost all my financial data up to November 2011. The new OS has many gratuitous changes and fancy names for things I still don’t know what they’re for… Launchpad… Mission Control… FaceTime… Terminal. Also, I can never remember which exotic animal it is: Leopard? Jaguar? Wildebeest? (If you had a wildebeest, you’d have to call it Oscar.) But at least I had e-mail and Internet and a half-formed idea of how to use the new Quicken. So all was good…

…until the next day. I had hooked the wilde thing up with the power adaptor, but the manual said that you could extend the reach by plugging the power cord into the adaptor, then into the wall, etc. etc. Which I did. Everything seemed copacetic, but I didn’t notice until hours later that it was going to shut down in 2 minutes because it had been on battery power all day! The connector’s light wasn’t lit, even though I had plugged all the right things into the right things. So then I was frantically trying to check the manual and get to Apple Support to find out what to do before the battery gave out. I tried everything. I should trademark that phrase: “I tried everything(TM)”. I kept plugging and unplugging the adaptor, then exchanging it for the power cord again, and nothing worked. I even tried to reset the SMC! which I have no idea what it is, but it didn’t work anyway. The beast went black.

In the midst of all this, my cat Brutus, who is fascinated with cords and wires, kept getting in my way and I was getting increasingly frustrated and yelling at him to the point where I ran out of curse words. I had all my desk stuff plugged into a surge protector, which appeared to be working fine, because my desk lamp was plugged into it and it was still on, but as a last resort (or a penultimate resort: the last resort would be calling Apple, which I hope never to do again in this lifetime) I went and got the surge protector that was protecting my bedside lamp and radio. Had to untangle the cords in the dark because of course had to unplug the lamp… and Brutus was trying to get in the middle of everything, swatting at the cords that were dangling that I couldn’t see. It’s very hard for me to get down on my knees, but I rigged up a pillow and a footstool so I could get under my desk and exchange power strips. Brutus “helped.” I could barely reach the wall outlet and kept fumbling with the plug. Finally got it in, then had to move all the plugs to the new power strip and then claw my way back up and plug in the connector to the laptop, and VOILA!, the charge light came on and the power came back on, and I was limp with relief.

It took me another day to discover that my landline phones didn’t work. I will spare you the boring details of what I went through before giving in and calling TimeWarner, and also the paces that the tech support person put me through before she figured out that I had failed to plug in one of the phone cords between the modem, the computer, the wall, and at least one body orifice. (I’m kidding about one of those.)

news from social media

  • gazelle.com on Facebook: “People don’t say tissue anymore, they say Kleenex. Apple wants that for its iPad. It worked for its iPod.” (I don’t know, I’ve heard “tissue.”)
  • Kotex is on Twitter. I just can’t think of anything to tweet to it about. Maybe: “Suggest u change name 2 iKotex. Cross-ref. from iPad.”
  • I tweet: “How it feels to get old. Receptionist at dr’s office: ‘Oh you brought a book [to read while you wait]. It’s a BIG book!’ ” (Well-meaning condescension: better than the other kind?)
  • I tweet: “(1/2) In my hometown, growing up, you’d say ‘go to the store,’ ‘go to the show’ or ‘go to the drive-in’ and no one had to ask ‘which one?’ ”
  • I tweet: “(2/2) Now you still don’t have to ask which store, which show, but you have to specify McDs, BurgerK, TacoB, Arbys, ad nauseum (literally).”
  • Best title ever: “OMG: Stories of the Sacred” @TheMoth
  • Michael Moore tweets: “Every Michigander counts – even those who live an hour behind us on the WI border and root for the Packers.” (I reply: “Hey, don’t rub it in.”)
  • Albert Brooks tweets: “If I were president I would allow poor people to drink 1% milk.”
  • My only Twitter follower is my friend V. Well, I have 3 others, but they’re strangers and I can’t figure out why they would follow me. One day I checked out V’s Twitter page and was puzzled to find maybe 200 short tweets that didn’t seem to make sense. Found out later that she and her son were working companionably on 2 computers in the same room. She habitually utters her thoughts, random musings, and observations out loud, so, unbeknownst to her, her son opened a Twitter account in her name and tweeted everything she said while browsing on eBay and CNN. The tweets are hilarious when you know what was really going on. Here is a small sample:

—Wait a minute here…what happened?Wait a minute…Wait a minute..Uh oh.Oh-it’s there.False alarm.Never mind.[singing]Never mind,never mind.

—Oh yes, it is, oh, yes, I’ll say so, yes, indeed, uh-huh. I would say so. I would. I would say so.

—Utah has named an official state firearm.

—Let’s put this here. Let’s put that there. Let’s put that there.

—Ahhh-HA. Ahhh-Ha. Ahhhhhhh-Ha.

—That is very sweet… very cute. Forty dollars? I don’t think so.

—Uh-buh-buh-ba-ba-ba-ba-buhm.

—BART train falls off track. What?

—Oh, I’m going to have to get off my butt – I hate that!

—I did it! I got off my butt! I decided it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t so hard!

—Well, look at that. They’re getting a new library card. Oh, Okay. Ahh, the plot to bring down the British Empire, okay.

—Oh! Bingo! Zingo! Dango!

—Every day I’m still amazed I can move.

—[singing] Miiiinistrone. Miiiinistrone. Miiiinistrone. Miiiinistrone. Miiiinistrone. Miii-iiin-istro-ne.

—Goodness, gracious, I’ve GOT to get something accomplished today!

—All right, that’s it. I should do this. And I did this. I did this. And I need to do this. And what was i doing here? Was I reading this?

—I think if all Americans sat down & watched Donald Duck on Christmas eve it would unite us and wipe out all the animosity in our society.

  • By the way, you can follow Twitter on Twitter. You can also follow Facebook on Twitter. But can you “like” Twitter on Facebook? Yes, you can!! It’s a brave new world after all.

                                                                       

                            …follow me, I’m tweeting!

Mary McKenney

 


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