Posts Tagged ‘humor’

mary’zine #43: March 2010

March 16, 2010

… an engaging, intermittently exciting but ultimately frustrating mix of assertion, reminiscence, free association, repetition, clowning and showing off, with just enough talent on display to keep you [reading]. —from a book review in the New York Times

Sometimes I wonder: Can you be a narcissist if you have the insight to wonder if you’re a narcissist? My mother surely never thought of herself that way, but she was incapable of seeing her children as separate beings. Sometimes I feel like a Ph.D. candidate working in an obscure field such as the use of alliteration in 19th century Albanian literature. Except my obscure field is me.

A friend of mine, new to the mary‘zine, wrote me:

I am surely no extrovert, but you are researching every nook of your self! … I myself see me as a configuration of matter who perhaps finds out more about it(self), but in the end, were there not pain and happiness, find it not important whether it is me or not.

To which I responded:

You came very close to calling me egotistical, but I see my explicated introversive excavations as inquiries into the self, not necessarily mine. You could say I’m detecting my own personal particles, the better to understand what we’re all made of and how we’re divided, sometimes by being slammed against each other at high speeds.

I love having the power to slant anything I want in my favor.

Now you may be wondering: Where the heck did that come from? Well, as I was reading the book review quoted above (a biography of Little Richard), I had a strong sense of déjà vu, as if I had read (or written!) those lines before. If you want to call that “making everything about me,” so be it. If being a narcissist is a crime, then put me in jail and throw away the key. At least I’ll be in good company.

makes you wanna holler!

It’s balmy days in the U.P.—low to mid 30s, and even edging into the 40s at times. Wait—I can’t keep up—now we’re up to 53! There’s an icebreaker boat out on the bay, and they’ve taken away the little ice fishing houses. Ice!—it’s a thing of the past, almost! The frozen, bent trunk of my birch tree that I was so worried about a couple months ago has sprung back impressively. The birds are out in force, chirping like a Greek chorus with only good things to say. They’re even more excited about spring than I am, because I live indoors and can order takeout over the phone. They’re on their own, except for my largess—store-bought seeds, heated bathwater, etc. I’m going broke keeping them in the style to which they have become accustomed.

I’m in that transitional period between paying for snow-plowing and paying for lawn-mowing. It’s a sweet spot that won’t last, but it all adds up. In February I saved a bundle in housecleaning money because my niece’s back went out and she couldn’t do anything strenuous for a couple weeks. It’s terrible to look at things that way, but times are tough. My grand total of earnings for December, January, and February was $1,445. It’s time to start thinking about withdrawing funds from my IRAs, though I’m putting off signing up for social security until I can’t manage without it. (I have a suggestion for a nomenclature change: How about we reject the terms “seniors” and “boomers” and start calling ourselves “the socially secure.” Ha, ha. With a bitter top note of irony.) By the way, I love how the old folks “randomly selected” to be interviewed on Fox “News” for their views on health care reform were all in agreement that government-sponsored benefits are just the worst thing since Teddy Roosevelt—except for their own social security and Medicare, I presume. Some old guy at a rally was carrying a sign that read “Keep the Govmint Out of My Medicare.” Hey, take another look at your checks, old-timer. And really: “Govmint”? Walter Brennan called and wants his hillbilly dictionary back.

I don’t write about politics much, partly because it’s too depressing to see my Obama hopes go the way of my Clinton hopes, and partly because others can do it so much better. If you’re not reading Frank Rich in the Sunday New York Times, you’re missing one of our national treasures. His column on February 27, 2010, “The Axis of the Obsessed and Deranged,” brilliantly analyzes the antics and dangers of the so-called tea partyers and the old-time Republicans. It’s hard sometimes to see the future of this country in positive terms, when I was all giddy with excitement a year ago. I just can’t reconcile the idiocy that’s all over the news these days with the fact that a majority of voting Americans elected a black man to the presidency with great fanfare. Have progressives become the new Silent Majority, now that the regressives have taken center stage?

I would like Frank Rich to write about the “open carriers” (of guns) who have been cropping up in the Bay Area, flaunting their right to wear a pistol on one hip and ammo on the other. (One guy said he could get his gun out of the holster, remove the clip, get the ammo out of the other holster, and load his gun in 2 seconds flat—making the claim of “unloaded” pretty meaningless.) Some of them even question the right of the police to stop them to see if the guns are actually unloaded. I get crazy when I read about people like this, and it’s not hard to make the mental leap to Nazi Germany. When this practice becomes commonplace, and these guys—too many to stop and check on—are walking the streets (and Starbucks) with their attitude of entitlement and macho posture of faux populist vigilantism, I see no plus side. Guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people.


I was going to say that 2009 was a quiet year for house repairs, but actually that’s when I got my new green siding, new doors, new driveway, etc. Now it’s raining men again. It started with a small flood (of water, not men!) around my downstairs toilet, and then my upstairs toilet, which had been giving me trouble for a while, finally met its maker (How do you do, Mr. Kohler; sorry I crapped out on you). Around the same time, two ceiling fans broke on me—one I couldn’t turn on, and one I couldn’t turn off. It was like an episode of “Bewitched.” Then my shower fixtures developed a leak, and I noticed mold on the ceiling of the garage, right under the bathroom. Plus, I’d put off having the rest of my roof replaced when I had the front, older part done 2 years ago, so this summer I’ll get the rest of it done. I’m fortunate to have a competent, reliable contractor, so I want to use him (till I use h-i-i-i-m up) as much as possible before he retires. My sisters have had horrible experiences with builders and roofers: K&MP had to sue one guy for doing a terrible job on their deck, and the guy who replaced the roof on Barb’s garage got drunk and told her to fuck off: Apparently one of his workers had offered to do some other work for her, and she thought he was working with the original guy, but he was poaching, if that’s the right word for stealing jobs behind somebody’s back. And here I come waltzing in from California, knowing nothing about the construction trade and less about the local talent, and I get this good guy.

Oh, and as long as he was here to fix the toilets, I had him fill some major cracks between the wall and the ceiling in four different rooms. Then I had to get my hands dirty and paint over all the plaster. It was horrible—all that leaning and reaching and trying not to drip and trying to keep the cats out from under foot—why does anyone choose to do physical work when they could sit in a comfortable chair and think about words all day?—and even though I managed to get the same colors from when K painted all my interior walls when I first moved in, you can still tell where I did the touch-ups.

The upstairs bathroom had the most cracks, and it was the one room K didn’t paint, so I’m faced with either painting it myself or asking her to do it on her infrequent days off. She wouldn’t say no, and she might even be offended if I don’t ask her—it’s so hard to read the social clues from someone who purposely hides them—but I told Peggy I was going to “put on my big girl panties” (a phrase I have never used before and, with luck, will never use again) and do it myself. I painted the attic room (see pics in #35), but that was fun because I could do anything I wanted. Bathrooms bring out the conventional side of me.

So today, Paul and a helper are tearing out the drywall in the garage, and Paul is fixing the plumbing in the shower. K&MP dropped by to bring me the leftover pizza I had forgotten at their house last night, and MP stood around and criticized everything the guys were doing until his bad knee started to give way. I really hate that macho bullshit—especially when I’m paying one guy to do something he says absolutely needs to be done in a certain way, and another guy tells me I’m being taken. My nephew says he wouldn’t trust Paul any farther than he could throw him, but he barely knows the guy. I trust Paul completely, but I still get nervous about agreeing to things I know nothing about. When the weather’s nice enough to put the roof on, it’ll be like it was 2 years ago: all men all the time, trooping in and out to use the bathroom and get a can of pop, and probably neighbors stopping by to ask if I’m married (see #35).

old folks’ night out

It’s 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon in February, and my sisters and brother-in-law and I are going out to Schussler’s, our favorite supper club. We’d had our usual Friday night gathering the night before, with takeout from McDonald’s, Applebee’s and Culver’s, but tonight we’re dining higher on the hog. Dinner is going to be on me, to thank them for taking care of my cats Brutus and Luther when I was in San Francisco.

K has just woken up from a nap, so she’s in the bathroom freshening up, and MP is watching one of those horrible movies where a dinosaur/dragon hybrid is harassing a couple of people in a forest. The dialogue is almost worth paying attention to, but not really. “On the highway are bodies as far as the eye can see,” a bald sheriff brandishing a rifle is saying. “It’s not letting anyone out!” [of where, exactly, I’m not sure]. Our hero and heroine are unhurt so far, even though the creature recently pounced on the car where the scared woman was trying to stay out of its clutches, while the man was off looking for it. She shoots the creature several times, to no avail, and the hero hears the shots and runs back, but now the creature is gone. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the same bald sheriff (how did he “get out”?) hesitantly hands a woman a rifle: “Do you know how to use this?” he condescends. I pipe up, “Yeah, even a woman knows how to pull a trigger,” whereupon MP challenges me as to whether I could handle a 357. “Yeah, you pull the trigger,” I repeat. I think he and I are in some sort of evil competition to see who can out-macho the other. I have to give him credit for holding up under my superior word power, but he’s got the advantage of threatening to show me his penis, whereupon I squeal like a girl and back off.

K hurries out of the bathroom to head off any possible fisticuffs, which only MP and I seem to understand will never happen: this is fun for us. We all get on our coats and boots, and K and Barb hurry out the door (“like George Costanza,” Barb says, as she closes the door in our faces; I guess she’s referring to George [on “Seinfeld”] pushing and shoving his way out of a burning building, knocking down old ladies in his way). I tell MP we should pretend to be having a real fight, so we both start yelling “OW,” “Stop!” and “You kicked me in the nuts!” (that was MP; I’m not that macho). K yells through the door to not make her come in there and kick our butts.

Then we’re outside, deciding whose vehicle to take. Barb offers to drive, but MP needs room for his recently-operated-on leg to stretch out, so he wants to take his truck. However, I have just closed the door to the house, which locks, and he doesn’t have his keys or a garage door remote on him, so he calls me a roundhead. K has keys, but she tries to open the deadbolt first, which wasn’t locked, so he calls her a roundhead. She finally gets the door open, MP gets in his big Ford truck, roars out of the garage, and we hoist ourselves up into the cab. We do not yet need mechanical assistance to do this, but that day is not far off. K is as agile as when she was a girl, but Barb and I are fighting the good (anti-gravity) fight. MP backs out of the driveway and then stops in the middle of the street to fumble around for the seatbelt extension for Barb (I have miraculously managed to fit into the regular one), and finally we’re ready to go. As he steps on the gas I say, “Old folks’ night out,” and we’re off.

We arrive at Schussler’s without further incident and troop into the bar, where there are 5 or 6 people enjoying a peaceful drink or two before going into the dining room. We sit down at the bar, and for some reason I go into performer mode—could it be because there’s an audience??—and so does MP. He starts the ball rolling, when he announces to the room, “She kicked me in the nuts!” I retort, “I hurt my toe! My little toe!” Everyone goes “Oooooo,” and I put my dukes up in case he’s going to come after me. I glance across the bar and see a woman smiling behind her hand. Thus emboldened, I ask MP why he’s sitting so far away. He says, “That’s where the chair was!” so of course I ask if the chair was facing the wall would he have sat there? He claims yes. I say, “If Johnny jumped off the bridge, would you….” and he responds, “Yes, I’d jump in after him.” We play-pummel each other’s upper arms. Oh, the fun we old-timers have. You kids have no idea.

I imagine K and Barb are trying to disavow any knowledge of us, which is difficult since we came in together, but they’re laughing whenever I look their way, so what the hell. When I next look to the other side of the bar, the audience has mysteriously vanished, so we have only the bartender to play to. I tell him that I like to challenge MP. He asks why I have to challenge him so hard, and I say, “It’s not hard.”

MP, probably exhausted from all the fun, goes off to find our table and be first at the salad bar, as I finish up my first margarita and ask for a second. Fortunately, our favorite waitress, Jackie, is working, and she earns her $30 tip by running our steaks back and forth to the kitchen, because they’re always too rare the first or second time around. She claims the cook doesn’t mind, and there’s no evidence of spittle on my tenderloin, but then there wouldn’t be, would there? Jackie looks like an older version of Carol, the receptionist on the Bob Newhart show where he plays a psychologist. She has the knack for making us feel like we’re her favorite customers, though I know she is beloved by all. I’m sure the big tips have something to do with it, but she does like us, and we don’t misbehave in the dining room like we do in the bar. We often hug as we’re leaving. She’s going to retire soon, and she’s planning to hand us down to her daughter, who also works there. Still, it’ll be a sad day.

So we enjoy our respective steaks and chicken and salmon, but we pass on dessert, because Midwestern desserts tend to be high in sugar and fat but low in taste—how is that even possible?—especially once you’ve had the real thing (“How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm once they’ve seen San Francisco?”).

Back in the truck, headed for home, it’s pitch dark out, but I notice on the dashboard clock that it’s only 6:15. That’s what happens when you go to dinner at 4:30. At K&MP’s, the two cats, Psycho and Orph, are ensconced on “my” recliner—one on the back and one on the footrest—so I awkwardly plop into the chair sideways, hanging awkwardly over the arm, which, later, K has to help me get out of. (I was an English major, can you tell?)

Over dinner I had mentioned that I’d gone to the Playgirl website to check out what’s-his-name (almost son-in-law of “Caribou Barbie”)’s semi-nude pictures and was surprised to see that the magazine is no longer the prim, harmless collection of photos of shirtless men with no visible cocks or only small, flaccid ones. Now it’s actively going after gay men, showing pics of pecs and awkwardly arranged poses, super-sized units, and purple tumescent prose such as “Young Billy has a hard, hot cock that wants to be sucked all night long!” (With that sentence, is Google going to insert my innocent little ‘zine into the results with all the bad-ass porn, I wonder?) After browsing the website but seeing nothing much of interest, I tried to leave, but pop-up ads for porn sites kept coming (is everything a double entendre, or is it just me?) as fast as I could close them. I’m pretty sure I’d still be trying to get out of there if I hadn’t pulled the plug on Firefox. When I restarted it, there was no sign of the multiplying marauders, but since I’m quite the sophisticated computer user, I know about cookies. (Who makes up the names for these things?) So I went to my cookie file and deleted all the ones that contained the words “porn,” “hot,” “sex,” “horny,” and anything else that looked suspicious. MP asked me how to remove cookies, so when we got back to the house I showed him what to do. I discreetly looked away so as not to see what he has listed there, though it can’t be any worse than mine.

By then it’s 6:45, it’s too hot in the house, and it looks like we’re not even going to watch TV, so I decide to call it a night. They all thank me for dinner, and I’m off. I stop at Angeli’s for broccoli, bread, a pre-made ham sandwich for tomorrow, and “reduced fat” (no two words are more beloved by the would-be dieter and self-deluded potato chip addict) Ruffles, and go home to spend the next several hours figuring out how to convert my TIFF photos to JPEG and uploading them (see “family photos rescued from 50-year-old slides” under “About” on the right side of the home page). I love that I can do anything I want with my site, including foisting digitized versions of yellow’d, pink’d, and orange’d moldy old slides on an unsuspecting public. It’s not about great production values for me, though I do envy the professional-looking sites of others. I tell myself that my crappy photos from 1960 are suitably impressionistic, vague, and out of focus, like my imperfect memories. I’m trying to turn lemons into lemonade here.

Google me Elmo

(Nothing to do with Elmo, so don’t get your hopes up.) I took a little unexpected walk down memory lane the other night. I occasionally Google myself, mostly to see how far down in the results my blog appears. The first time I searched for myself online, years ago, I couldn’t find anything about me, but there was an awful lot of information about someone with my name who was born and died in the 1800s. What made her so great, huh?, that’s what I want to know. But now my name and exploits are sprinkled throughout the results, from various sources, and I got bored with searching after about 8 pages… proving that even narcissists get sick of themselves at some point.

What was interesting this time was that I came upon all this old stuff from my days as a “radical librarian” in the early ‘70s. It was kind of cool but also mystifying to see that a world I was part of only briefly (in librarian years) is now part of history. (Or herstory, one of many ‘60s neologisms that never really caught on). There are some librarians now who are actually interested in that period and possibly envious of our radical shenanigans, like starting “underground” publications, writing upstart screeds for the big traditional journals, and protesting/infiltrating events at American Library Association conventions. Even though I was politically engaged at the time, all my activities felt kind of small and personal. I did get attention for writing an article on gay liberation for School Library Journal (!) in 1972 (!), writing scathing reviews of traditional women’s magazines for a reference book called Magazines for Libraries, and reviewing underground and extremist newspapers and journals for From Radical Left to Extreme Right. Also, after I was fired from my one and only library job at a small college in Maryland, I spent a year researching a bibliography on divorce (of all things) which was published as a hardbound book in 1975: You can still buy the one extant copy for $5.00 on Amazon. As long as I’m sharing my curriculum vitae, I wrote an article on “Class and Professionalism” that was published in a radical librarian magazine called Booklegger and reprinted in Quest, a feminist journal, and then in Library Lit. 7: The Best of 1976.

I was also a co-publisher of the Alternative Press Index and had great fun corresponding with volunteer indexer-librarians for a year before moving to the small college library in Maryland and causing a big rumpus on campus after getting fired for “undermining the director.” I realize that this recitation of my accomplishments from 30-40 years ago is kind of obnoxious, but I might as well throw in the fact that Library Journal received an angry letter from Gloria Steinem about my review of Ms.’s first issue, which I thought was woefully bourgeois. I don’t blame her for being upset—I was horribly self-righteous like the rest of my generation…. But if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

When I became a scientific editor—first at the American Journal of Respiratory Disease and later at UCSF—and got out of the radical librarian racket, I sort of forgot about all that. Now there are scholarly books in which my name appears in reference to my writing, publishing, indexing, and rabble-rousing. Daring to Find Our Names: The Search for Lesbigay Library History looked like the perfect place to look up my youthful legacy, but it costs $119.95. Sorry, I’m not that interested. And plus: Lesbigay?? I found the book on a site that would give me a free trial for 1 day, and then if I didn’t cancel, I’d be charged $19.95/mo. until I canceled. And nowhere on the site did it say how to cancel! I did get the page numbers where my name appears, so when I found excerpts from the book in Google Books, I looked up those pages. It was bizarre to see my no-longer self cited for all the things I falsely modestly bragged about in the paragraph above. Not bad for being an actual librarian for less than a year.

And of course (we’re still Googling) there are lots of citations from when I was listed in the acknowledgments of articles I edited at UCSF, and this blog turns up every now and then, causing strangers to visit my site looking for “dinosaur traps” (5 times!), “paintings of dew drops,” “canvas fix guide awning” (?), “lark coaxing,” and “derelict boiler rooms.” One person got to my site from Googling “everybody loses from potato bruises,” which I did mention somewhere in these pages because I was puzzled at seeing that phrase on a bumper sticker. She (or he) left this comment:

This is currently the only page on the internet with the phrase “Everybody Loses From Potato Bruises,” according to Google. We saw that bumper sticker today, too! Some old Nissan or something clunking around in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, WA. We were similarly nonplussed. Oh, they had a Denver Broncos bumper sticker too. Hmm.

Well, now it will appear on the internets twice. Maybe we can start a movement!

fonda Fond du Lac

A friend of mine was telling me about some of her youthful, and not so youthful, craziness, which often featured the telling of whopper lies just to mess with people. She and a friend were at the hospital visiting someone, and she told a nurse that they were lesbian moms who were there to pick up their new baby. (The friend didn’t appreciate that.) Just recently, she told an elderly woman at her church that she “ran crack” back in the ‘80s. I think she told her doctor that one, too. She has a deadpan delivery and tends to assume that everyone will know she’s joking. I reminded her that she had once told a boyfriend in high school that she was either (a) transgender or (b) born with both male and female genitalia. (I couldn’t remember the story exactly.) She vehemently denied it, but I’m sure it was something like that (but what would be “like that”?). Anyway, my favorite story of hers is that she and some friends were at a bar, and they met this guy who had just gotten out of prison. So she decided to pretend she had done time herself. She had seen lots of “Lock-Up” episodes on TV so had picked up some prison slang. So she says to the guy, “I did a nickel down in Fond du Lac.” (I’m sure you know that in prison lingo, “nickel” =  5 years.) When she told me this, we both doubled over laughing. I love that sentence so much that I want to use it as my epitaph. Let future generations wonder. Before she made the fatal mistake of telling the guy, “I’m just fuckin’ with ya,” a male friend of hers hustled her out of there, sure that the guy would kick her ass (or worse) if he found out she was lying.

Well, that seems an awkward note to go out on, and I have no grand statement with which to tie all the stories, such as they are, together. Frankly, I don’t even know what I wrote about this time. Here, I’ll try to think of it without looking back. Library glory days, playing dangerous games with ex-cons and brothers-in-law, the weather (always fascinating!), my poor house (which may yet send me to the poorhouse), and… Levi Johnston?? Help! Someone get me some new ideas! Is it better to have boring stuff to read than nothing at all? We shall see. Happy Spring, Almost!

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #20 January 2002

January 28, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

M: Where are you?

P: Van Ness.

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

[Five minutes later]

M: Where are you now?

P: The Waldo Tunnel.

M: I’m at Paradise Drive already!

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

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

P: Is it still raining where you are?

M: Yeah, but I can see blue sky!

P: So can I.

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

P: Probably.

M: I feel so close to you right now.

P: O-kaaaay.

And our respective physical states.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Eh, Pookie?

dont bother me im napping

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

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


I thought you were napping.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

do you really think anybody is still reading this psychobabble

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

oh youre funny

Do you like living indoors?



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

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

heh heh

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The quality of mercy is not strain’d;

It droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

dont let the bedbugs bite

heh heh

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #18 November 2001

October 12, 2009

It’s really hard to maintain your natural humility and lack of pretence when you’re being praised for your articulateness, your humor, your honesty, even your grammatical and typing skills. I’m speaking of Pookie, of course. My condo isn’t big enough for the three of us anymore—me, Pookie, and Pookie’s ego. The way he struts around here, you’d think he was the next Alice B. Toklas. I know he’s thinking, “Don’t kid yourself, they’re only reading this rag for my stuff.” But hey, I’m not proud—whatever works.

I have to admit that when I first realized Pookie was getting into the computer and making unauthorized additions to the mary’zine, I wasn’t too happy about it. One literary genius in the family is enough, don’t you think? Also, it seems to me that his style is highly reminiscent of mine. (Dare I call him a copycat?) I know that imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery, but he’s never shown any interest in flattering me before. Maybe he just has a highly developed sense of irony and enjoys mimicking my style to show that it isn’t all that hard to do. I’m a little concerned that he might get so good at it that he will gradually take over more and more of the ‘zine and even sign his name to stories I’ve written! If you start seeing a “P” or an “oo” working its way into the masthead, you’ll know something’s up.

But I’m not too worried. After all, who owns the means of production? Who brings home the Eukanuba Moderate pH Nutritional Urinary Formula? Who wears the clothes in the family? I rest my case.

On the other hand, there’s no definitive proof that Pookie, is, in fact, writing those extremely clever and creative passages. We have only his word for it. Everybody knows how easy it is to get writing samples off the Web these days. Now I know how those literary detectives who are trying to figure out if Shakespeare really wrote Shakespeare’s works must feel. It’s quite a puzzle. If Pookie didn’t write Pookie’s works, who did?? Some say there’s a dog in the neighborhood named Francis Bacon who’s been seen wearing a carpal tunnel wrist support, so who knows?

One interesting thing about “Pookie’s” writings is that he tends to lapse into Yiddish whenever he gets upset. I don’t know who taught him “oy gevalt,” but if he starts throwing around words like “farmischt” and “ferklempt,” you’ll know he’s an imposter. I mean, he’s as goyish as I am.

hey I know you kvell when they laugh at my jokes.

OK, buster, I’ve had genoog out of you today. There are important matters to be written about. Say good night, Pookie.

good night pookie.

[Editor’s note: Watch for Pookie’s upcoming column, Mews of the Day. The name was MY idea.]

[And to think I used to call Rita Mae Brown a sellout for giving up her life as a radical lesbian separatist to write mystery novels with her cat Sneaky Pie Brown. Now look at me—mouthpiece of Pookie McKenney. Pookie Pie McKenney? I’ll have to work on that.]

living in the ground ‘00s

I don’t know why, but every time I try to write something serious about the World Crisis, I end up writing about Pookie instead. I guess, in such stressful times, one wants to tap into the timeless… the eternal verities… the cat jokes.

For example, Pookie has been affected by the tragedy in an unfortunate way. He’s taken a sudden dislike to Persian cats. (Thanks to the selfless friend who gave me that line but doesn’t want the credit [or the blame].)

Last time, I talked about my conflicting feelings about displaying the American flag. Well, I finally gave in and bought a decal for the back window of my car and stuck it next to the gay rainbow flag. Then I put a small sticker of the Statue of Liberty on top of the rainbow flag. Thus is my layered and nuanced support of both my country and my chosen cause conveyed in the grand tradition of bumpersticker politics. However, I cut the bottom off the American flag decal where it said “God Bless America”—I couldn’t go that far. It’s not that I don’t want God to bless America, but I don’t like the implication that we’re the only ones who should be blessed. No country is an island (?)—well, we’re not, and 9/11 was definitely our wake-up call.

For years, I’ve had a plastic Godzilla sitting on the back of my washing machine. (No reason—you should see the rest of my house. For example, there’s a life-size plastic skeleton sitting behind a semicircular desk in the living room; it sports a University of Michigan baseball cap, the skull t-shirt I used to wear all the time, and a cross necklace, and its skeletal fingers are resting contemplatively on the book Demolition Angels by Robert Crais.) A couple months ago, when I was decluttering my sand tray room, I decided to put a wooden Buddha on the washing machine next to Godzilla. For weeks they just sat there, passively coexisting as if they were mere objects sharing space. Then it occurred to me to move them so that they faced each other. Suddenly, the spark of truth—the monster of aggression threatening the peaceful monk, and the laughing Buddha raising his arms in blessing and in welcome. The scene struck me as a microcosm of each of us in the world—our aggressive, selfish, survival instincts—the reptilian brain—constantly at war with our transcendent awareness of who we really are (We are stardust, we are golden And we got to get ourselves back to the garden [sorry, I’m having a marijuana flashback]).

When I went back in the house after creating the sticker tableau on my car window, I realized I was holding the sticky “God Bless America” strip from the bottom of the American flag decal. Impulsively, I stuck it on Godzilla’s back. And thus my bumpersticker sensibility acquired yet another layer, another nuance. The special aggression of nationalism (God Bless US) faces off against another way of looking at the world, as maya, as illusion, as beyond the duality of nations and of concepts.

And if you think I’m contradicting myself (“yay America” vs. “America = monster”), well that’s why Art attracts me more than Politics. In Rumi’s famous words, “Beyond right and wrong there is a field; I’ll meet you there….” It’s also what makes this country great—and maddening at times. You and I are free to express our layered and nuanced, sometimes contradictory feelings, whether artistically or politically. (How much do you think I love the phrase “layered and nuanced”?) And that’s the side I have to come down on, when all is said and done.

[Sidebar: A few days after adorning the car window with symbols of my current belief systems, I found the following words [?] written in the dust on the trunk of my car:


This message bothered me for days—what could it mean? Perhaps “I have put anthrax in your gas tank”? or “Down with the California Highway Patrol”? A neighborhood kid told me it means “I am a Guatemalan,” but a Spanish-speaking friend said it’s not even Spanish. I wanted to believe the Guatemalan explanation, the patriotic sentiment of a stranger far from home and thus somewhat in keeping with my sticker sentiments, but I guess it will remain a mystery.]

But to get back to my point, if I had one. Little did I know that the decision to display the flag was the easy part. This isn’t a perfect society, by any means, but I’m finding a faith in “America”—the essential decency of our people and our values—that I haven’t felt since I heard JFK’s “Don’t ask what your country can do for you” speech. (Are they sending patriotism germs through the air????) It’s embarrassing to be having these feelings. I don’t know what to make of them and don’t really trust them. On the one hand, it feels strangely liberating to be set adrift without an ideology to fall back on (Kelly, I’m mixing my metaphors on purpose), because I also don’t want to be thrust into the camp of those who are pro-USA-at-all-costs.

I think a lot of people are struggling with this. I got an e-mail from K, with whom I worked at the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Michigan 30 years ago [gulp], where I used to argue with the faculty about capitalism and where I got in trouble for writing SUPPORT BAM (Black Action Movement) on my timesheet. In her e-mail, K mentions having a conversation with her husband about hanging the flag.

…he had a feeling after 9/11 that he wanted to hang our 4th of July bunting above the front porch (why we even have one is beyond me… plus we live at the dead end of a dirt road a football field away from the dirt road and NO ONE can see our house). I told him that something about that really didn’t sit well with me—the flag and religion were too closely entwined and didn’t he understand that I was a product of the late ‘60s when I was ashamed of my country and its flag and considered moving to Canada?… The arrival of your zine helped me further sort out some of my feelings.

She goes on to say,

By the way, a VERY LIBERAL sister of a friend of mine fell off a ladder on September 12 trying to hang a flag over her cement drive and broke her shoulder/arm in three places.

Let that unfortunate person’s accident be a lesson to us all. It can be downright destabilizing to mess around with a powerful political symbol you’re not familiar with. Would this have happened if she’d been hanging a “Free Tibet” sign?

One of the unnerving things about getting older is that you are sometimes forced to realize that ideas you’ve been taking for granted since your college days might need a bit of readjusting. It’s like keeping the same hairstyle for your whole adult life—making it easy to distinguish the bouffant-haired ‘50s beboppers from the long-haired ‘60s radicals. (My hairstyle only dates from the early ‘80s, so I’m ahead of the game.) It’s especially weird for the “Times They Are A-Changin’” generation to see that all times change, not just the ones you want to be done with.

Personally, whenever I see one of those bumperstickers that say, “Question Authority,” I always write “Why?” on it.

—quoted in Author Unknown by Don Foster

“Question authority” is the classic bumpersticker distillation of my generation’s politics. I’ve been questioning the authority of the U.S. government since at least 1966, but in recent weeks I’ve realized that there are other forms of authority that can be just as insidious. The Left is not always right just because its adherents claim to walk the high moral ground.

It’s not that I’ve changed my basic political inclinations, but I’m finding it difficult to apply them to the current crisis. My point is that those who “question authority” seem to have only one model for what authority is—the parent/high school principal/college administration/government model. But it’s also important to question your own assumptions. My friend Z has a bumpersticker on her car, “Don’t believe everything you think,” and I say Amen to that. If you believe everything you want to believe, you’re going to pass along “untrumors” (now I’m channeling Herb Caen), such as the one that CNN used decades-old footage of cheering Palestinian children after 9/11. The alternative theory is that reporters threw candy up in the air to get the pictures they wanted. This may be true, for all I know, but I think that the desire to believe this kind of thing, the idea that everything’s a conspiracy, should be questioned also. God forbid that people should refrain from dissenting—I haven’t gone off the deep end and drunk the Kool-Aid yet. But all “authority” is not out there.

I have been known to pontificate about how I’m waiting for the concentration camps for gay people to open, because I wouldn’t put it past the Christian right, if they gained enough power, to take such an extreme stand. One fundamentalist’s “infidel” is another fundamentalist’s “queer.” Different scriptures, same bigotry. But I now question this cynical hyperbole on my part. It might be more dangerous to inflate the enemy’s influence than to focus on the essential decency of people. It’s tempting to believe the sky is always falling, but how wearisome to live in a state of such mistrust.

Even paranoids are right twice a day—oh no, that’s clocks.


(Hold your applause till the end.)

Back in the day, another popular saying was “Even paranoids have enemies.” And it was true—the FBI files that came to light after the Freedom of Information Act showed us that they really were spying on us. But I think the reverse is also true: “Even those with enemies can be paranoid.” Panic about anthrax is one thing, but the prevailing panic on the Left about how we’re in imminent danger of losing all of our freedoms seems just as counterproductive. “As long as we still have it, I’m going to make the most of the First Amendment….” I assume Stephanie Salter was speaking figuratively when she wrote that, but still, there’s a lot of this rhetoric going around. Does it mean I’ve been brainwashed if I have more faith in our country than that? Granted, it was chilling to hear the infamous “Watch what you say” comment from the White House, but I do believe that dissent and free speech are so integral to our traditions that they will not be eliminated so easily. I can’t convince myself I live in a police state just because I don’t agree with everything our leaders say and do. There are plenty of real police (or fundamentalist) states in the world that wouldn’t tolerate half the freedoms we have.

America Freaks Out

(The Daily Show’s answer to “America Strikes Back”)

Contrary to popular opinion, 9/11 did not sound the death knell for irony, and humor once again saves the day and our sanity. (One of the writers who famously announced the death of irony later said, “I was misquoted. I said the age of IRONING is dead.”)

On The Daily Show, a cast member is purporting to give a report about the anthrax scare while headlines run under his talking head, as they do on CNN. At first, the headlines are straightforward, and then they get increasingly silly.


Then there’s a “fight” between the reporter and the teletyper, and after a while the report continues and the headlines are back:


OK, so I quoted that whole bit just so I could use the line WHITE POWDER FOUND ON DONUT IN ST. LOUIS.


And who do you not want to be right now? Members of the thrash metal rock band Anthrax. (“When bad things happen to good band names…”)

“Rock me, B. anthracis!”


Some people are still trying to solve the “mystery” of 9/11. One of my editor friends wrote me this:

…got an email a while ago about the numerology of it, how everything comes down to the mysterious number 11:

Sept. 11, or 9/11 or 9+1+1 = 11

Sept. 11 is the 254th day of the year: 2+5+4 = 11

After Sept. 11, there are 111 days left in the year

The Twin Towers, standing side by side, always looked like the number 11

The first plane to hit the towers was American’s Flight 11

New York was the 11th state to join the Union

There are 11 letters in New York City, Afghanistan, and The Pentagon

etc., etc. …

Tup [her husband] chimed in, “Yeah, and the other flight was 77, which is 11 only with funny hats.”

floating down de Nile

I’ve been writing this issue over the span of several weeks, and I find that my interest in political analysis (a fancy term for “trying to figure out what the hell I think”) is on the wane. It’s a new phase. As time goes on, I view the daily headlines about bombing and anthrax scares with a strange sense of detachment. I’m not getting bombed. I’m not getting anthrax. Disaster and grief seem so mid-September. Why is this stuff still happening? Maybe the Zoloft is turning me into a nation of (1) sheep. Or maybe it’s saving me from useless panic and anxiety. I seem to be in denial, and it’s the only place I can be right now. Didn’t the president (note to self: I’ve never called him that before) say we’re supposed to get back to normal? Well, I’m back to normal. Why do I feel so guilty?

In this mood, I go to my weekly painting class, less sure than ever about what is going to come out of me. For those of you just joining us, I paint at a studio ( where the focus is on the intuitive process, not on “making art.” Thus, we don’t plan what we’re going to paint or try to make it look a certain way. We talk about “what wants to come into the painting” or “what wants to be painted.” Sounds kooky, but it works. Sometimes we paint what’s going on in our lives, and sometimes it’s all just a big fat mystery. Sometimes life is a big fat mystery. Since 9/11, I had painted the events only once—a fast painting of people falling or jumping out of the towers, because that image was haunting me. It felt good to paint it—sometimes what we’re most afraid to feel turns out to be more manageable when we get it out on the paper.

So on this day I start a large painting of myself, letting the brush go where it will, going with the flow, as they say, and I’m somewhat surprised when I paint a few small airplanes at the top of the paper. Then I paint some dead bodies at the bottom. I’m just painting, without a lot of (identifiable) feeling. Finally, some “anthrax bugs” come in, flying at my head, along with a couple of “terrorists” shooting me and grabbing me from behind.

On my second painting, I know I want to paint myself standing on top of an airplane, waving a flag. It feels good, feels right. It’s a relief not to have to make sense of it. The plane is red, white, and blue—starred and striped like the flag—and it’s dropping three bombs, one labeled U, one labeled S, and one labeled A. I have a flag in one hand and a bomb in the other, with a short fuse burning. My heart has tubes coming out of it. Bodies are falling from the sky above me—they feel like they’re from the World Trade Center—and underneath the plane, more bodies are falling—these feel like they’re in Afghanistan. When I describe it, it sounds conceptual, as if I were making a (confused) political statement, but I swear, it just happened as I painted and watched.

Now I’m on a roll. I’ve been painting for an hour and a half, and I’m in the zone, just letting it all come. On my third painting, I start with three black airplanes flying across the top, dropping bombs. Dead black bodies are piled at the bottom of the painting, and I’m standing on top of them, looking up, holding an American flag in each hand. Red tears are coming out of my eyes, and my heart again has tubes coming out of it. This time, yellow light is streaming out of each tube onto the dead bodies below. My body is white, heart is red, eyes are blue. Nice symbolism, but again, it just happened. I notice later that the way I’m holding the flags (one up, one down), I look like I’m flagging the winner at the Indy 500. No clue what that’s about, but fortunately it’s not my job to know. Time is up, so I’ll finish this painting next week.

So those are the images, but they don’t tell the whole story. As I said, we aren’t painting to make art or to make a statement but just to be with ourselves, to explore without judgment. When I sit down with everyone in the group afterward, I feel strangely whole in a way I haven’t felt since 9/11. I feel as if I’m everyone I painted—the victims, the terrorists, the bombers, the bombed Afghanis—and, being everyone, there is no need to figure out which “side” I’m on or what I think about “revenge versus justice.” Even the image of me standing on the dead bodies, holding the flags, looking up at the planes—it doesn’t make a coherent political statement, but it says something true, I think, about how we are each “all of it.” Feeling whole, I feel both big enough and open enough to embrace and embody all the contradictions that the mind can’t begin to resolve.

Looking around the studio and talking to my painter friends, I find it fascinating to see how differently the 9/11 events are being expressed—some people are painting fast, violent images of bombs and bodies, and some are painting slow, detailed scenes of men in turbans and rippling flags, or close-ups of the World Trade Center flames, or just pages and pages of black tears. I would love to see an exhibition or a book of these paintings. They’re like the paintings of traumatized children—forget “art,” this is pure response. And yet there is a beauty and a power in these spontaneous images. We paint with the simplicity of children but with the emotional depth and complexity of adults.

I heard an interview on “Fresh Air” with a photographer who’s taking pictures of the World Trade Center wreckage. His aim is to make the pictures absolutely starkly clear and to have them enlarged so much that you see the things themselves without anything getting in the way—no interpretation, staged effects, special lighting, etc. It struck me that we painters are doing exactly the opposite—we’re not trying to capture the image objectively; instead, we’re expressing what’s in our hearts and souls. It’s not about the event “out there” but about our human response. So each painting is individual and yet archetypal, because we’re responding without manipulating the image—so (come to think of it) maybe it’s a little like what the photographer is doing after all. Each painting is a product/snapshot of the human heart, without anything in the way—no interpretation, staged effects, special lighting, etc.

The photographer said something else, about how in late afternoon the smoke and the pink light from the sunset and the red drapes hanging on nearby buildings make this scene of devastation look utterly beautiful. He said he couldn’t fathom how beauty and horror could be so entwined. It struck me as a perfect argument for the existence of God.

Make of that what you will.

chat mystérieux

Scenario 1

I am coming downstairs. Pookie is in the kitchen eating his expensive, pH-controlled cat food, a good 25 feet away. As soon as he hears me on the stairs, he flees the kitchen like a wanted man and either cowers under the dining room table or makes his way around the perimeter of the living room, crouching and scurrying like a Marine on a mission, finally taking cover behind an armchair. If they sold camouflage suits for kitties, he’d be the first one in line.

Scenario 2

I walk into the sandtray/storage/litterbox room to put a bottle in the recycling bin and come face to face with Pookie. A look of stark terror crosses his face, as if I’m the one-armed man and he’s The Fugitive, Richard Kimball, about to go over the waterfall. He makes a mad dash for the door, barely escaping the fate to which I surely would have consigned him. I have yet to figure out what that might have been.

Scenario 3

I am coming up the stairs, carrying a heavy basket of laundry. Pookie is lying on one of the stairs, stretched from one side to the other, taking up every inch of space. As the basket of laundry hovers precariously over his head, and as I grunt in an unladylike manner while struggling to find a foothold on the stair he so lordily (is that a word?) occupies—and failing that, as I straddle the stair and him and attempt to hoist myself and the basket up to the next step, risking life and limb—he looks up at me with the bemused, dispassionate gaze of a direct descendant of Buddha’s cat and begins methodically licking his right paw.

Forget Sneaky Pie Brown. This is a mystery.

By the way, His Royal Highness has informed me that his preferred nom de plume is now Pookemon. I have created a monster.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #14 May 2001

September 14, 2009

Well, it’s been a quiet month in Lake Nobegon….

Have been watching all the hair fall out of my head—unexpected bonus of female aging. Bald pate will go nicely with the goatee that’s springing up.

Been to the dentist 8 times in the last 3 months, for bridgework. Would sell firstborn to pay $3,000 bill but unfortunately never bred.

Made my first purchase of Efferdent to clean the new partial denture. Wonder if they still make Serutan (“Nature’s spelled backwards”), a kind of elixir for the elderly. Will have to pay closer attention to commercials from now on.

Walked down to Macy’s in Union Square after last appointment. Fashion, fashion everywhere and not a thing to buy. There’s DKNY, but where’s DYKE?

Best compliment I’ve gotten all month: “You are like a well-worn sweatshirt.” Baggy, I presume.

Read in the newspaper that cats need a “job” to avoid stress. Obediently went out and bought Pookie a cat dancer—feathered mouse (?) dangling at the end of a plastic stick. $7.49. Cat dance? Fat chance.

Then spent $46 on special veterinarian-approved food and powdered food additive for his dry skin. Hunger strike could last a while, considering his fat reserves.

Am doing my annual caffeine detox. Down to 1 cup of green tea and 1 Excedrin per day. Robert Downey, Jr., I feel your pain.

Work continues to be educational. Learned that rats do not have a gallbladder.

Computer is on its last legs—well, it’s 18 months old, which is about 65 in human years. Screen freezes if I try to print and chew gum at the same time.

And that’s the news from Lake Nobegon.


I received a plaintive request from a faithful reader, Kathy T., who wants more Pookie news. I tell Pookie all the time that he is becoming a celebrity and has to start taking his fan base more seriously—by giving me, his underpaid publicist, more material. He merely squeaks—doesn’t even bother to meow—and heads for the other room to lie on cardboard.

So I’m forced to dig for stories. He wouldn’t like me telling this one, because what happened was an assault on his dignity, as most things that happen to cats are. But that’s the beauty of living with an animal—they’re illiterate, so you can write anything you want to about them.

PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder, but in this case it also stands for Pookie’s Traumatic Spa Day. I give Pookie a bath every 14 years whether he needs it or not. Actually, that’s not quite true. When he was 7 or 8, he escaped from the patio somehow. Unable to handle the terrible responsibility of freedom, he hid under a nearby car for hours, as I roamed the neighborhood calling his name. When he finally managed to make enough of a pathetic squeak to let me know where he was, I had to crawl under the car and drag him out. Of course, he had big oil spots on his head and back. I didn’t know about kitty day spas then, so I changed into some old clothes, grabbed a big towel, and took him into the bathtub. I didn’t have any special cat soap, so I used Joy dishwashing detergent for its grease-cutting properties. I was prepared to do battle, but he was actually quite docile as I soaped him up and then rinsed him as best I could, using a washcloth and a basin of water.

Well, we both lived through the experience, but I didn’t want to repeat it. For years now, Pookie has had a skin problem that gives him something like kitty dandruff. (Oh my God—was it the Joy?) I’ve asked a couple of vets over the years what I could do about it, but they weren’t much help. One said, “Feed him table scraps,” and I had to laugh. Honey, we don’t have table scraps at our house. Also, because he’s longhaired, he tends to get a lot of mats, and doesn’t enjoy my yanking on his fur or coming at him with scissors. The situation got even worse after his you-know-what was cut off. He has to pee like a girl now, and his private parts—or I should say, his no-longer-private, no-longer-parts—tend to dribble. Things got pretty desperate, olfactory-wise. (His personal hygiene in general leaves much to be desired. He does his fair share of self-cleaning, but often I will come upon him sitting in the middle of a room with a dazed look in his eyes and one back leg sticking up in the air behind his ear. Either he’s contemplating the mysteries of existence, or he forgot what he was doing.)

So anyway, after much agonizing indecision, which is—face it—how I live my life, I decided to take Pookie to Cat’s Cradle, a feline grooming and boarding place in San Rafael, to be shampooed, combed, clipped, fluffed, and folded. I was dreading it—partly because I was embarrassed to have such a grungy cat and partly because he has been known to shit and piss in the carrier on the way to or from the vet’s, as his personal signature of disapproval.

The setup to this story is a lot longer than the actual story, which was like a dream come true. I dropped him off at Cat’s Cradle at 8:30 a.m. and picked him up at 1:00. He was soft and clean as a kitten, and the spa lady didn’t even make me feel guilty about the gross factor. She did tactfully give me some suggestions for how to deal with his skin problem.

The boarding part of the operation is right up front behind glass, and it looks very pleasant. They even have special accommodations for the non-user-friendly felines. So it seemed possible that I could send Pookie on an extended spa holiday the next time I go on vacation, instead of forcing my friends to make daily pilgrimages to the house to maintain his royal lifestyle.

I was thrilled to have this experience over with and to be able to touch Pookie without washing my hands afterward, but the down side was that he went into a serious funk. It took him 2 or 3 days to recover—he just hunkered down in his bed like a meatloaf or a sphinx, staring straight ahead, with his purr switch on Off. I felt guilty—and had second thoughts about the vacation idea. But he came around eventually, and now if I could just get him to eat his pricey food with the dry skin helper on top, and to do his “job” by dancing for the feathered mouse (instead of lounging on his side, batting casually at it while I do all the work), we might just live happily ever after.


In a year that has not been the greatest for me so far—on so many levels—I had one really great day a few weeks ago. It was truly ordinary in most ways but felt so different. (1) The main difference was no headache, or at least only a small one, of manageable one-Excedrin size. (2) Got new work—a book by an old acquaintance who synchronistically reappeared in my life. I’ll tell you about her sometime. (3) Got a great e-mail from one of my Austrian authors. I had edited a paper for his colleague, and the colleague was “really happy” with my work… so Philipp wrote: “We are all happy you exist!” and there was just something so touching and uplifting about his invoking my existence; I mean, there are presumably other (better?) reasons why I exist, but it was nice to know that I make a difference to someone way on the other side of the world. So I spent the afternoon stretching my brain editing Philipp’s paper on intensive care unit statistics (he’s English-challenged, and I’m statistics-challenged, but we’ve managed to get all his papers published in good journals so far) and finally collapsed on the bed, bone- and brain-weary but with that great feeling of an honest day’s work finally over.

Pookie got on the bed with me, which he usually only does in the evening for TV-watching purposes. I let my mind go (which some would say I did a long time ago) and started thinking about the hilarious interview with Mike Myers that I had seen the night before on “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” Just thinking about different parts of it got me laughing. James Lipton, the interviewer, had complained about a hysterical takeoff that “Saturday Night Live” had recently done of him. He said they got it all wrong—they did him with a British accent, and “I don’t have a British accent, I’m from MICHigan, for Christ’s sake!” And so I laughed when I thought of the SNL takeoff, which I had seen, and then I laughed at James Lipton’s umbrage and at Mike Myers’ deadpan agreement that the takeoff was completely off base, and Pookie looked over his shoulder at me and went “Errkk?” because my laughter was shaking the bed and making him bounce, and that made me laugh all the harder, and I told him it was like putting a quarter in a massaging fingers bed, and that made me howwwl till I was rolling back and forth, unable to speak. It was a laff riot of 1, if you don’t count Pookie, and I don’t—that’s one thing about cats, they have no sense of humor. Then I thought of the word “laughterbation,” which set me off again, and finally Pookie jumped off the bed in disgust, and even that was fuel for the funny fire. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that helpless kind of laughter by myself before. It’s happened with Peggy, and it used to happen all the time with my sisters and my mother—the four of us would be falling-down, pee-our-pants laughing over something completely silly while the brothers-in-law looked on, stone-faced—which made it all the funnier, of course.

When I finally settled down, I felt thoroughly refreshed—much more so than after the other –bation. So I have to agree with Reader’s Digest that laughter is truly the best medicine. If you have no moral objections to self-pleasure and want to try a little laughterbation yourself, here’s a suggestion. Get thee to a used bookstore and look for a copy of How to Massage Your Cat, which is inexplicably out of print. [2009 update: It was reprinted in 2003 and is available on Amazon.] It’s the funniest book ever written (and illustrated). These laughing jags are one of God’s greatest gifts. Laff on.

white like me

At the beginning of this issue, I invoked Lake Wobegon, the innocent fictional town of funny-talking people that Garrison Keillor made famous. And I got to wondering if he has ever told a story about racism in Lake Wobegon. Something tells me no—it’s not exactly the stuff of humorous anecdotes. But the good Lutherans of the far North—despite little in their surroundings to indicate that any color of person other than pinkish exists—pass racist beliefs on to their children as surely as they pass family stories about the Old Country and the recipe for abelskiver. These are my roots. My people were not the slaves, and not the slaveholders either, just the ignorant (not innocent) bystanders….

My earliest memory of being aware that there were “differently colored” people in the world was when I was about 5 years old and my parents and I took a car trip to Oak Park, Illinois—a suburb of Chicago—to visit my aunt Dagmar. We were driving through a part of Chicago where all the people on the streets were dark-skinned, and I gleefully called out from the back seat, “Look, there’s a nigger!” My mother, horrified, turned around from the front seat and hissed at me—“Shhhh!” And at that moment, the complex conditioning that is instilled in white people in America took root in me, at least on a conscious level. Obviously, the seed had been planted sometime earlier when I first learned the word and matched it to the dark face. What’s strange is that I don’t remember ever learning that word—and there were no dark faces in my town to match it to.

I remember a couple of other details from that trip to Oak Park. Having been told that we were going to ride the El, which was “a train in the sky,” I told my friends to watch for me in case we flew over our neighborhood. In Chicago we attended a live TV show, and from my seat in the audience I thought the camera was trained directly on me. I wasn’t happy about being there for some reason, so I spent the whole time scowling at what I thought were the viewers at home. I mention these two little misunderstandings because it didn’t take me long to figure out the nature of El trains and the fact that TV cameras pretty much focus on the stage. But no one ever came forward and said to me, “You know, ‘nigger’ is a bad word, not because it could get you beaten up on the streets of Chicago but because it’s demeaning to perfectly decent people.”

As to where I learned the word, I figure someone passed it into my lexicon when I read Little Black Sambo. Then there were Brazil nuts, which were routinely called “nigger toes,” and the childhood chant, “Catch a nigger by the toe, when he hollers let him go….” I’m deliberately using that shocking word when it’s the word I mean. It’s not that I think we should ever become comfortable using it, but I think we sweep the reality of the slur under the rug when we resort to the coy and disingenuous “N-word”—as if it’s a joke or something cutely naughty.

Later in life, I became aware of the origins of this early conditioning when my aunt Doris and uncle Sonny came to visit me in San Francisco. My aunt matter-of-factly announced upon arrival that they had had to drive through “niggertown” to get there. I was horrified, of course, having moved into a more genteel world by then, where you knew to disguise your nasty thoughts with nice language, or you didn’t admit you had nasty thoughts in the first place. This is why white working-class people are scapegoated for their racism—they aren’t more racist than the higher-income classes, they just don’t coat it with nice words. This is one reason they’re called that other ethnically demeaning term, “white trash,” which is considered completely acceptable in this age of careful, “sensitive” language—don’t say “Pollock” or “dago” but feel free to dismiss millions of people as “white trash.” Don’t get me started—oops, too late—but I think this term is still in use because it lets people project their racist feelings obliquely on a safe target—can’t mention race but can get all high-and-mighty about white people who “have no class”—in that double meaning that says so much about how poor white people are viewed. (“In our society, money is equated with virtue”—Jon Carroll, S.F. Chronicle; “The upper income classes tend to be highly intelligent and to have highly intelligent children….”—letter to the editor, S.F. Chronicle [substitute the word “privileged” for “intelligent” and we’ll talk].)

Ahem. Where was I?

Not that derogatory words are the only way to insult people of color. Once when I was back home visiting my family, my 12-year-old nephew wanted to sit in the front seat of the car with me, whereupon my sister told him, “No, Mike—black folks sit in the back, white folks sit in the front.” I noted the change of language—was that progress?—but was horrified by the same old sentiment. I launched into a diatribe—“What are you teaching your kids?”—and she got (justifiably) pissed at me. To her, it was a completely benign saying, a “joke.” In lecturing her, I was playing the insufferable older sister who goes away to college and comes back with strange sensitivities and high-falutin’ ways. I was the privileged one with a middle-class job and a middle-class social conscience to go with it, while my sister stayed in our hometown, raised two kids, and worked (still works) at a strenuous, noisy job in a factory making couplings. In this situation I knew I was “right” in one respect but wrong in so many others.


Strangely, I don’t remember hearing any anti-Semitic comments when I was growing up—not even “They killed our Lord.” To me, Jews were the chosen people as portrayed in the Bible and remained that way in my mind even after I stopped reading the Bible. They were the people my father fought for in WWII. And quite literally, “some of my best friends” have been Jewish. I know anti-Semitism still exists—that it’s a strain of “emotional bacteria” that will probably never be completely eradicated—but I don’t understand it. And I wonder if that is largely due to not having been exposed to that form of racism as a child. Also, I just thought of this: My mother loved Jewish humorists like Sam Levenson, Herb Shriner, Shelley Berman, and Allan Sherman. I can’t think of any black performers she liked, except maybe Bill Cosby.


As I try to come to terms with this difficult topic, knowing that there’s no point in writing about it if I’m not going to be truthful, I feel like I’m pushing a shopping cart with a defective wheel that keeps pulling to the side. It would be so much easier, in a way, to write about growing up working class, or about being a woman or a lesbian—I could get on my high horse and harangue you about how middle-class people, men, and straight people have oppressed my sorry ass. They say you’re supposed to write about what you know, right? I don’t even have any black friends—my experiences with actual black people have been so marginal, it’s embarrassing. But I figure that sometimes you have to write about what you don’t know so that your admitted ignorance can be a beacon to others similarly without clue. And in the process, you reveal what you do know, which is how you see the world, for better or worse. Then, if the shoe fits, other people can wear it too.

After I decided to write about racism, I came up against a lot of fear. It was difficult to think about exposing myself in that way. What if I revealed more than I intended? What if people took it the wrong way and didn’t catch all the nuances of how I’m not actually a raving racist, I just think like that sometimes? Perhaps if I had more Pookie stories to tell, I would have convinced myself to save this heavy topic for a later issue. But I kept thinking about what the painting teachers say when you get stuck and don’t know what to paint—“Did an image come to you that you rejected?” And so, even after I decided to play it safe and write instead about gay marriage and other things homo (“The Evolutionary Importance of Gay People”), something kept nagging at me. Then I talked to J about it, and I came away knowing I had to push that edge. So, even though my shopping cart keeps wanting to turn onto safer ground, I’ll just keep wrestling with it, if you don’t mind—just as I wrestle with the feelings and contradictions of being white in this society, or at least white like me.

When I e-mailed a friend that I was trying to write about this topic, she wrote back, “I understand your ambivalence about committing ink to racism… it IS loaded for people, and there is SO MUCH PC-ness around it. Makes me afraid to move.” And it’s just this paralysis, this fear of “moving”—of saying or doing the wrong thing—that makes it all the more important, I think, for well-intentioned white people to talk about racism. Even if we use all the right words and shun all the wrong ones, we know the nasty secrets of our heart and of the thought process that keeps racism alive. Personal feelings are only a small part of the reality, of course—but as we used to say in the ‘60s, “the personal is the political.” So it’s a place to start.

One last disclaimer: Obviously, there are many different groups that make up the color and culture spectrum. I’m focusing on black people because they seem to provoke the most complex feelings in those of us who are a whiter shade of pale. But let me recommend a fascinating book about the “history of multicultural America”—A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki. I was surprised to learn that the Irish were oppressed by the English long before the concept of skin color evolved as a way to divide and conquer. So class distinctions may be even more deeply embedded in our collective psyche than racial ones. As I’ve heard it said, few white people would object to living next door to Colin Powell—but blue collar workers in neighborhoods of a certain income level are another story altogether.


I told myself that in writing this, I was going to stick to my personal experience and leave out the polemics, but I’m not having much luck with that. I happen to be a born polemicist. Even though I also love to schmooze about my adventures in the grocery store aisles and my close encounters with a certain kitty cat, get me near a political topic and I start lecturing. Well, I cannot deny my Buddha-nature. Please humor me for a few more pages….


I know how hurtful it is to sensitive black men to see white women cross the street to get away from them, clutching their purses to their bodies as they glance over in fear. So when I see a black man walking toward me, I not only refuse to do that, but I make a point of saying “Hi” to show that I am not that street-crossing, purse-clutching scared white woman. Sometimes when this happens, I feel there’s a genuine human moment of connection between us that can be read on more than one level—(a) I’m just being neighborly and saying “Hi” like I would to anyone else; and (b) I’m conveying what I believe to be a richly layered awareness of the cultural norm and my refusal to participate in it. And yet, it becomes such a self-congratulatory thing, and inevitably condescending, as if I’m doing him a huge favor by not running from him on sight. I’d rather not see everyone through the frame of race, but it seems inevitable, and I figure you have to start somewhere. So I say “Hi.”

It’s one thing when I see a friendly-looking black man in my own neighborhood who’s out for a walk just like I am. But it gets complicated when I feel in any way threatened as a woman. The culture has taught white women that dark-skinned men are more likely to rape us. This is a statistical untruth, but the perception is hard to shake. When I was in college, I was painfully aware of Eldridge Cleaver’s statement in Soul on Ice that raping white women was rightful revenge against the white man. This disturbed me, to say the least, but I didn’t question its validity—partly because of a prefeminist lack of self-respect. If class distinctions may be older than the arbitrary concept of race, how old is the belief in the inferiority of women? Old as the hills, and alive and well today.

So it’s hard for me to sort out in any given situation—say, on the street at night—who has more to fear, me or the black man. My whiteness isn’t going to protect me from his physical superiority—but historically, at least, my pale sisters had a lot of power over his dark brothers through the evil of false accusation. And my “white skin privilege” permeates my life, though the benefits are mostly invisible to me, just as men’s various entitlements seem natural and unremarkable to them.

I imagine a cartoon in which a black man and a white woman are approaching each other on the street. Both are scowling, and the thought bubble above the black man’s head says “White oppressor!” and the bubble above the white woman’s head says “Male oppressor!” We see through our own particular lenses, always. It’s as if humanity is a giant Rubik’s cube, hopelessly scrambled. No wonder we find it hard to move. I knew a young white gay man who thought I was a guilt-ridden ‘60s dinosaur for being anti-racist—he couldn’t get past the “rudeness” of black teenagers on the bus who called him “fag.” He could see the injustice done to him but refused to see all the ways in which their lives were completely circumscribed in comparison to his.


A few years ago, I was shopping at Macy’s in The Village—an upscale shopping center in Marin—where I always stick out like a sore thumb, or think I do. Marin is the first or second wealthiest county in the U.S., which means that I mostly feel like a fish out of water—or a fish in a fishbowl—something to do with fish, anyway. I seem to straddle genders and classes, and Marin is not really a good place to straddle.

So I’m riding down the escalator in Macy’s, wanting to get this shopping trip over with. I gather my courage to go browsing in “young men’s streetwear,” where I may get smirked at but where it seems to me all the “normal” clothes are. (OK, so I straddle ages, too.) I look over, and there’s a black man riding up the escalator just across from me. Although it’s not that unusual to see black people in Marin, there’s something about the fact that I’m feeling self-conscious about my own misfittedness, and I register that he’s the only nonwhite person I’ve seen in the whole store. Anyway, a blinding number of synapses fire in my brain. The ones I can catch are:

(1) Since I have immediately identified him as a fellow outsider in this situation, my first impulse is to smile at him, as if he would instantly read my smile as “Aren’t we just the biggest sore thumbs in the place?”

(2) I quickly suppress this impulse for fear of being rejected in my attempt at frivolous bonding. He may fail to discern (or appreciate) how different I am from all the other white people in the store.

(3) Worse yet, he may be all too aware of my differentness. Remember the cartoon I imagined above? In this version, the black man’s thought balloon could be saying: “White oppressor!—Dyke!

(4) This projection makes me feel potentially judged by him, and so in defense I judge him right back. I’m afraid to imagine what the thought balloon over the white woman’s head says now.

(5) In half a second I have gone from feeling like a “sister” on some minor, all-oppressed-peoples-unite level to feeling like just another pathetic white liberal who seeks out the approval of black people in order to convince herself she’s not a bad person. (“I may be white, but I’m not like them!”)

My glance at this man and the flood of thoughts that followed—even my desire to initiate a friendly, complicitous fellow-outsider look—simply reeked of racism, not because I wished to run him out of town or burn a cross on his lawn but because I looked at him and immediately defined him by his blackness and then proceeded to trip out on all my stereotypical reactions. I wondered what it would be like if the thoughts of all the white shoppers in the store, upon noticing this man, were broadcast over the PA system—what terrible detritus from our sordid racist history would we hear? Even if a small number of the shoppers were perfectly comfortable with people of color, and even if a fair number were so lost in their own quest for consumer goods that they wouldn’t notice if the Harlem Globetrotters slam-dunked their way through the perfume aisle, I still think that the buzz of assumptions, reactions, and defenses precipitated by years of racist conditioning would be deafening. My last cartoon fantasy—every white person in Macy’s with a different racial slur in their thought balloon, maybe a few that have gratuitous “compliments” like “Hey, I LOVE Stevie Wonder!,” and the balloon over the black man’s head saying “HELP! I just came in here to buy a tie!”


What is a ‘black person’?


The best advice I ever got about how to approach the thorny problem of actual contact with a person of color was from the late Pat Parker, a Bay Area poet. In “To White Girls Who Want To Be My Friend,” she wrote, “Forget that I’m black/Never forget that I’m black.” This is contradictory on the surface, but it makes a lot of sense to me. So when I interact with a “black person” (J’s question rings in my head whenever I say that), I hold both attitudes in my mind at once and hope that by not trying to deny any part of what’s going on in me, I will be able to receive the truth of the person.

When I worked at UC, there was a black man named Bernard in my friend Liz’s lab. Bernard was huge and didn’t smile much, and I was completely intimidated by him. Because Liz liked him, I tried to be friendly despite my self-consciousness and his lack of response. One day I made him laugh, and that broke the ice. After that, we would stop and chat when we saw each other in the halls. What surprised me at first was that he couldn’t seem to make enough disparaging remarks about white people—everything was “crazy white people” or “crazy white women.” But he said these things cheerfully, so I went along with it. I sensed something was going on, that I was being tested. And as I continued to respond not with outrage—or with flight—but by laughing or shaking my head, the remarks faded away. I think he was conveying that I couldn’t just treat him like an honorary white person and be “color blind” and act like his race was irrelevant or taboo. (“Nice people don’t talk about things like that”—an attitude I’m very familiar with from the gay angle.) People who are different from you don’t want to be whitewashed (so to speak), they want to keep their identity and be accepted and treated decently—which I think is what Pat Parker meant by her paradoxical statement.


I was listening to “This American Life” one Sunday on NPR when they interviewed an African American woman who had moved to Paris because the French seemed free of racism, at least compared to what she was used to in this country. (It sounded great; I wish there were a place like that for women.) She talked about the time that she and her friends tried to push to the front of a line at a Paris theater and the French people yelled at them and made them go to the back of the line. She liked this, because it showed they were being treated like everyone else. She and her friends had routinely pushed to the front of lines in the U.S., where, she crowed, “White people are afraid of us.” She apparently regretted her candor, because she added, “Maybe I shouldn’t say that.” And my immediate thought was, “That’s right, you shouldn’t!” I felt a surge of resentment, because it hit too close to home. It’s painful to feel the wrath of the downtrodden—and to be mocked, besides! But when I feel that way, when I feel unjustly (or justly) accused and labeled, I take a cue from the men I respect—bet you didn’t expect me to say that—who are able to acknowledge the righteous anger of women without becoming defensive or going on the counterattack. I think that’s the first step toward healing an ancient rift.


I like to read a murder mystery.

I like to know the killer isn’t me.


A few years ago, I saw “Rosewood,” a movie based on a true story about white southerners in the 1920s who burned down an entire town and killed all the black people who lived there.

It made me sick to watch it, not only the killing itself but the laughter and excitement of the white men as they went about their business, proving their superiority. I had a sudden, sickening realization that they were exactly like the Nazis—in their hearts their hatred was the same, regardless of the local, unorganized nature of the American version.

I found myself trying to pick a safe place to land in all this. I wanted to blame the men, because I’m a woman, but it was a woman who (in the movie, at least) put the whole thing in motion by lying about a black man having raped and beaten her. I wanted to blame the southerners, because I’m from the north, but as I’ve said, some of my northern relatives could have been in the front lines. In one scene there’s a group of white people by the river singing hymns and baptizing children. I had a jarring moment when I saw them all standing there, nice and clean and dressed up, holding babies, because they could have been my family, my town—my sweet aunt and uncle, referring casually to “niggertown.”

So my mind buzzed on, not wanting to have any part of that disgusting heritage, not wanting to accept that I could ever have feelings like that. But when I first moved to my neighborhood, groups of Hispanic men used to gather under the big tree outside my bedroom window every day and in the middle of the night, talking and drinking beer—leaving behind all their trash. It got so that I hated the sound of Spanish. I knew that what I was feeling was racism—extrapolating the actions of a few to the entire ethnic group. At the same time, I felt vulnerable as a woman living alone, in a neighborhood where, over a period of months, three of my windows were broken, my condo was burglarized, and my car was vandalized. So I felt like a victim in my own right. Would I have felt free to stumble drunkenly and loudly through the night, as those men did? Would their wives have felt safe gathering outside a stranger’s house, drinking beer, playing a radio? The very thought of women doing those things is ridiculous. On the other hand, I was living alone in a three-bedroom condo, making a good salary—not holed up in a small apartment with 8 or 10 other people, begging on the streets for work. It’s the Rubik’s cube again.

Watching a movie, when I’m safely distant from the bad guys and they’re showing a sanitized picture of the good guys, it seems obvious. There must be evil, it must reside over there—in Germany, in the south, in men, in gay bashers, in rich people. I’m adept at putting the dividing line wherever I can land on the side of the innocent.

Despite my efforts to the contrary, I feel dishonest. Always trying to show (to others, to myself) that I am good. Hating the bad people. Hating the bad in myself. Hating people who hate. Or not even admitting that I hate any of that. Going toward the light. Trying to project an image of compassion when inside I am burning with anger and resentment. Projecting, always projecting, so the bad things will stay over there.


p.s. This issue is brought to you in part by Copy Central, at which I won my second “fishbowl gift certificate.” I have put my business card in their fishbowl only twice and have won both times. Or maybe it’s just a marketing scheme in which they pay off everyone who bothers to put their card in. (As always, I am suspicious of good fortune.)

[Mary McKenney]

#5 in a series… the best of the mary’zine that never made it to print…

August 16, 2009

The Marinette-Menominee Eagle-Herald

November 14, 2008   Peninsula: UP;  Stocks: DOWN;  Weather: IFFY

“Doin’s ‘Bout Town” [redacted for the interwebs]

by H. Society

Well, things have been a-hoppin’ at the home of Miss Mary M—,  North Shore Drive, Menominee, these past two weeks. Ordinarily a solitary homebody, a senior who shares her beautiful home with two charming felines, the divine Miss M— entertained a succession of guests from far-flung parts of the country.

The first guest was Miss Peggy D— of Grants Pass, Oregon. Miss D— is quite familiar with the Marinette-Menominee area, having visited our twin cities back in the 1970s when she and Miss M— were first … enjoying each other’s company. She often visits at this time of year, in time to celebrate the birthday of her hostess, who turned a whoppin’ 62 this year! ‘Bout time to apply for Social Security, eh? The two old friends spent lots of time relaxing, napping, reading, watching football, obsessing about the upcoming election (“Yes We Did!”), and, of course, eating. They mostly patronized three local establishments: Schloegel’s Bay View Restaurant in Menominee, Schussler’s Euro American Grill & Caterers (or “Supper Club,” to those of us in the know!) in Peshtigo, and the pride of Menominee’s First Street elite, The Landing [Ed. note: Ask for Cindy!]. Miss D— also distinguished herself by cooking two delicious meals for the pair, as well as doing several “man chores” around the M— home, which was much appreciated by our hostess with the mostess. On Miss M—’s birthday, they ventured down Green Bay way to Fratello’s Waterfront Restaurant, where they tasted the best of what Wisconsin has to offer (no offense, Schussler’s!). And the next day they joined local family members Mr. and Mrs. Michael (Kay) P— and their son J— for fine dining at, well, Schussler’s, which gets more ink in this paper than I do. Mrs. Barbara K— was ill and could not attend. Birthday gifts, at Miss M—’s suggestion, largely consisted of gift certificates for Don’t be surprised if you see a sharp upsurge in brown delivery trucks in the neighborhood! Throw in a 50-mile drive north to Escanaba to dine at the lovely Stonehouse, and you have some idea of how desperate the locals are to get a decent meal.

After a day of rest and laundry, the parade of visitors continued, with Mrs. and Mrs. Terry and Jean B—-E— enlivening the scene. They hail from Massachusetts, ‘nuff said. (Hint: Note the double “Mrs.”!) They too enjoyed the hospitality of the local establishments. (By the way, Miss D— could be Mrs. D—-B— if Oregon were as progressive as Massachusetts and Connecticut—but let’s save the political rabblerousing for the editorial page!!) At the oft-afore-mentioned Schussler’s, the three friends were joined by Mrs. K—, beloved sister and teacher in the M— Area Public Schools. The evening was capped by a viewing of Mrs. K—’s large collection of handmade bracelets and earrings, of which the Mrs. B—-E—’s chose their favorites and insisted on paying.

When Miss M— and her guests were turned away from The Landing at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night (no reservation—what were they thinking??), she whipped up a delicious meal of penne pasta (a type of spaghetti shaped like a little tube), tomatoes, and sausage. The Mrs. B—-E—’s showered their hostess with well-earned praise.

All of Miss M—’s visitors had the benefit of a tour ‘bout town. Sights included the neighborhoods in which she grew up—Hwy. 35 near “The Cove,” an exclusive community of three wooded estates on the shore of Green Bay, where Miss M— trespassed daily as a young child to get to the public beach; and the formerly picturesquely named Bay de Noc Road (now 18th St.; feh) where the woods, pastures, sand hills, sand roads, and blackberry and raspberry bushes (and wild asparagus and rhubarb!) of yesteryear have been replaced by large, gaudy dwellings (with pillars yet), a manmade pond, paved pathways, and the extensive grounds of the K— (of K— Construction) family, who entertain their neighbors every Xmas with a display of religious sayings writ large in neon in the trees they have not yet hacked down—“Praise God in the Highest,” etc. etc. (imagine if, instead of “God,” they had hoisted electric praise to “Allah,” same deity, different name—Mon Dieu!)—plus the aforementioned First Street (where the other half of 1% lives); the much-traveled Hwy. 41 between State Farm Insurance and Pine Tree Mall; and, of course, John Henes Park, Menominee’s pride and joy and Miss M—’s earliest stomping grounds and personal Mecca hajj sacred site of possibility…. that expanse of cozy bay off Lake Michigan, with the world, vaguely perceived but beckoning, on the horizon, calling me, calling me, I mean, calling Miss M—, calling Miss M—.

Mrs. and Mrs. B—-E— also challenged Miss M— to put her massive brain to the test of finding a physical space containing books for sale. After much thought, and a largely fruitless trip to Wal-Mart, she remembered the grandly named Book World in Marinette (WI), which also specializes in magazines, cigars, and smoking accoutrements. Good books and time were had by all.

Last, but certainly not least, was the arrival of Miss Diane L—, from gay town, San Francisco, California, though Miss L— herself is not “one of those” (not that there’s anything wrong with it). Miss L— also toured the small circumference of Miss M—’s early life and ate in the same aforementioned three restaurants, because the alternatives were just too grim. Miss L—’s motto is “Be Prepared!”; hence she brought goodies from her hometown of Milwaukee—tortilla chips, salsa and bean dip, apple nutbread, stoneground wheat bread, granola, wine—as well as a hostess gift of a warm scarf bearing a close likeness of the Fabric of the Universe™ design created by Miss M— at the Center for Creative Exploration ( painting studio in San Francisco. The two old friends also visited Book World, which hasn’t seen that much business in months (just kidding, BW! Love ya!), and drove through “the grittier side of Marinette”: “tavern row,” Menekaunee shipyards, and an abandoned paper mill. They’re saving “Pollack Alley” for next time. An African American man was sighted, causing them to immediately lock their car doors. Just kidding, African Americans!

The two weeks, though packjam with social activities, just flew by, and before she knew it Miss M— was bidding her final guest adieu and returning to her beloved yet ultimately unknown and unknowable routine with her feline companions, B— and L—, two brothers rescued by Miss D— from the shores of our very own Green Bay three years ago! And so, we leave the homey meows-à-trois to their placid existence within the many walls of one of the most inappropriately large—but beautifully green—houses in the history of the U.P.

That’s “Doin’s ‘Bout Town” for this week! Toodle-ooo!

[Mary M—]

#4 in a series… the best of the mary’zine that never made it to print…

May 29, 2009

I couldn’t make it to the May ’09 7-day painting intensive in San Francisco, because it’s so expensive to go (plane fare, hotel, rental car, the whole bit) and business hasn’t been so good this year. But I’ll tell you about my horrible trip home after last year’s intensive.

frumpy, funky, and fried…

I must have used up all my good vibes, good luck, and good karma in the intensive, because my return home was a grueling 2-day ordeal. I was supposed to leave on Saturday at about 1:30 p.m., but the plane that was going to take me to Chicago was late arriving from Australia. As the minutes between our estimated arrival time in Chicago and the departure of my connecting flight to Green Bay (the last flight of the day) dwindled to a precious few, I alternately stood in long lines at “Customer Service” [haha, funny name], pestered the agents at the gate, and called the barely-English-speaking man at United for advice on how to proceed. At one point I left the “Customer Service” counter and walked past the 25 or so people in line, only to hear a young man call “Ma’am? Ma’am!” I walked back toward him, puzzled, and he started to say, “Something is sticking out of…” and I thought, Oh yeah, dollar bills must be sticking out of my pocket, that happens all the time. But he continued, “…your pants, like toilet paper or a seat cover.” Oh God. I pulled out the paper (it was a seat cover) but only got half of it, which I didn’t discover until later. In my humiliation I kept my dignity by thanking the young man politely and walking back to my gate, grateful for the gift of anonymity. (So far, at least, I haven’t seen my sorry ass on YouTube.)

It finally became obvious that the plane was not going to arrive in time, so I decided to stay in S.F. another night. At least I could go back to the Laurel Inn rather than try to find a room in Chicago, a city I know nothing about. I rebooked my flights for Sunday, called the hotel to reserve another room, and took the Air Train to the Rental Car Center to get another car. But when I got there, the line was so long that I decided to take a shuttle to the hotel instead. That meant more waiting and Air Training and walking, and I was already exhausted and distraught. My suitcase and tube of paintings, of course, went on to Chicago without me. I hoped they were having a good time. I, on the other hand, was wearing my last pair of socks, my last t-shirt, and my last underpants. When I schlepped back to the terminal and found the Super Shuttle, I had the worst experience of my trip and possibly of the last 10 years of my life. The driver was Russian, and his entire vocabulary in English consisted of “NO,” “CAN’T,” “GEARY” and “UNION SQUARE.” He also had no idea where anything was. The other people in the van kept shouting at him to take this or that turn, but he ignored all advice and merely repeated his limited English, even arguing with some of the passengers about where they intended to go (“UNION SQUARE! UNION SQUARE!”). I hadn’t taken my Dramamine for the flight yet, so we were on the freeway in a hellish traffic jam when I realized I’d better down it fast or there was going to be a disaster much worse than the toilet paper caper. I quickly swallowed a Dramamine, but it was too late. The driver kept slamming on the brakes and making wild twists and turns through the city, not to mention taking several longer than necessary routes, and I barely made it to the hotel without barfing, for which I give due thanks to whatever Supreme Being or Random Order spared me.

I then had to figure out what to do about my lack of clothing and personal hygiene products. I ended up walking several blocks to Walgreen’s and buying toothpaste, a toothbrush, and some of those little half-socks that I never understood the point of. They didn’t have any underwear. I also bought a cheap t-shirt that was about 2 sizes too small, but I decided to take my chances with the one I’d been sweating like a pig in all day rather than advertise my bulges even more prominently than I already do. Unfortunately, I forgot to buy deodorant and hair gel. The only good part of the day (besides not barfing) was having an excellent dinner at Asqew on California St.—Santa Fe chicken on a skewer over a Caesar salad. Mmmmm.

On Sunday morning, I was ready and waiting by 7:00, when I had arranged for another shuttle (not Super) to pick me up. My flight was to begin boarding at 8:05, but I figured I would have plenty of time because I already had my boarding pass and no luggage. But I hadn’t learned my lesson from the day before. The driver was 10 minutes late, and then we had to drive all over downtown picking up other people. At one stop, the person wasn’t there, so we lost another 10 minutes waiting. As we were driving away, a woman was standing in the street waving, but when the driver stopped, she turned and walked back toward the hotel. When we had gotten several blocks away, the dispatcher called the driver and told him he had “left the passenger behind.” So we had to go back for her, and yes, it was the woman in the street. Believe me, when she got in the van she was greeted with stone-cold silence.

When we finally got to the airport, there was a line of people at security snaking back and forth at least 4 times. I tried to talk several different agents into letting me go ahead, and they all casually (unfeelingly, callously) told me to stay in line. After another agent assured me I had “plenty time,” a woman rushed up and told him her flight was boarding at 8:15. So he let her and several other people through so they could get to the head of a new line, even though my plane had already started boarding! I was crying by this time (thank God for sunglasses). When I finally got to the part where you take your shoes off and put your stuff in the bins (including a half-bottle of water that I knew I couldn’t take with me), one of the agents rushed up and frantically told me (as if catching me with a bomb in my pocket),  “YOU CAN’T TAKE THIS WATER ON THE PLANE!” I yelled back, “I KNOW! TAKE IT!” but at least I refrained from swearing at her and getting arrested. I was in no condition to appear on CNN or YouTube, even without the indignity of wearing a toilet seat cover on my backside.

So… I made it to my gate in time. Since I hadn’t had a chance to choose the seat, I wanted to change my window seat to an aisle. The woman at the gate was all sarcastic and head-shaking—“10 MINUTES BEFORE DEPARTURE??” But she whipped up a new boarding pass for me and told me to get moving, the plane was waiting! When I found my seat, it turned out to be—what else—a middle seat! I just knew the BEETCH at the counter had done this on purpose to get rid of me! I was crying again. Oh, I forgot to mention that, for lack of gel, my hair was completely flat and hanging down my forehead like dork bangs—that was the frumpy part. Fried and funky are self-explanatory, and getting worse by the minute.

In the chaos of everyone trying to get their luggage into the overhead bins, etc. (naturally, we didn’t leave in 10 minutes—it was closer to an hour), I talked to two flight attendants and a “customer service” [there’s that funny name again] agent to see if I could change my seat, but of course the plane was full. Apparently, someone had snagged my window seat in the 2 minutes it took me to get on the plane. Or so they all claimed. So I had to accept my middle seat between 2 large men. I tried not to raise my arms, but I’m sure they got a good whiff of me. How quickly the appearance of the elderly or even semi-elderly can make us seem deranged and destitute if we have even a teensy-weensy hygiene problem that is completely not our fault!

So I resigned myself to my fate, reached for my cell phone to turn it off, and discovered that I had LOST IT. I figured it must have fallen out of my pocket in the van. (It did, and I got it back a few days later for a $60 FedEx fee.)

I must admit, the flight, when it finally got off the ground, wasn’t too bad. But then at O’Hare I had to schlep to a different terminal and then wait around for another hour or so. At the gate I had been directed to by the Departures screen, the words “Green Bay” never appeared on the board. When I asked the gate person if the plane we were about to board was actually going to Green Bay and not Saginaw or North Carolina, which were on the board, she said, in that condescending singsong voice that conveys so much, “That’s corrEHHHCT.”

(p.s. I really don’t care that these people have shitty jobs; we flyers have enough to put up with—the delays, the power-mad security people, the extra fees for every little thing—why do we have to deal with snotty, unhelpful employees and then be expected to have compassion for them?)

So I finally got on the plane, and the final 300 miles were a piece o’ cake.

My luggage, as you’ll recall, had flown out on Saturday, and when I tried to find it at the Green Bay airport it was nowhere to be seen–and no one on duty in the baggage claim section. Finally [is this like the 100th time I’ve used the word “finally”? but that sums up air travel these days] I found someone at the reservations desk to look for it and he found the suitcase but not the tube o’ paintings. After more searching, he found the tube, but it had come in on my Sunday plane. So even if I had made it to Green Bay on Saturday, I would have had to go back for the paintings. Does that make it all worth it? Was that synchronicity’s plan after all? Hell, no!

Finally (again), I schlepped (more and more schleppily) to the far corner of the long-term parking lot with my carry-on bags, rolling suitcase, and painting tube, found my Jeep, it started right up, and I was ON MY WAY. I was even more frumpy, funky, and fried than when I had left S.F., but I was happy to be only 50 miles from home. An hour later, when I turned onto my street, I had this real-life VISION of my IDYLLIC homestead. A misty little rain was coming down, but the sun was shining, and everything was so GREEN—a color I had practically forgotten existed!—the leaves on all the trees had come out while I was gone. There was a rainbow over the bay, and my big beautiful house was the pot of gold. The neighborhood was TOTALLY QUIET except for the chirping of dozens of birds (which I had also seen little of in S.F.). It was like when the movie “Pleasantville” goes from black-and-white to color. How happy I was to be home in my very own corner of paradise. I was a day late and almost $300 short, but I made it.

Brutus and Luther, my twin-brother kitties, were overjoyed to see me; we slept all snuggled together that night, and the next day I periodically heard plaintive little meows coming from a distant room, and I’d call out, “HERE I AM!” and they’d come bounding up the stairs on little cat feet and jump in my lap or just get a reassuring pet before they went off again to do whatever it is they do.

So…. I guess all’s well that ends well for editwell. I must say, the intensive was still worth it, but I hope not to repeat those last 2 days anytime soon. I pinned my two beautiful paintings up on the wall, and now I’m using one of them as my profile photo on Facebook.

[Mary McKenney]

#3 in a series… the best of the mary’zine that never made it to print

May 29, 2009

hi-tek lo-blo lim-bo

Back in the bad old days of dial-up Internet, a working telephone was, obviously, essential. In 1996, I was just beginning my editing business and was desperate for work, which I was getting mostly through e-mail. I had a big clunky car phone, which I could use when my regular phone wasn’t working, but of course it was no use in getting online. Funny how every advance in communications technology creates all new ways for communication to fail.

For months, my phone line had been shorting out whenever it rained. It was torture for me not to be able to check my e-mail. I imagined undelivered frantic messages from friends wondering why I hadn’t answered, or incoming work waiting to land in my in-box like planes circling over SFO. I was at the tail end of a big project and couldn’t afford to lose touch with the publisher’s editor, so one morning I had to call Connecticut from my car phone. Did I feel like a big shot sitting out there in the carport calling my editor back East? You bet—living the California dream I was. To really fit in, I should have taken the Honda out on the freeway and drifted from lane to lane while obliviously conducting my important business.

The car phone was expensive to use when I had to deal with voice mail and stay on hold for minutes at a time, so one day I called Pac Bell’s repair line, 611, from a greasy earpiece’d outdoor pay phone while a guy practiced revving his motorcycle right behind me. The recording took me through a dozen options and finally assured me in a cheerful canned voice that the problem was in my equipment. When I finally reached a human, whom I could barely hear because of the aforementioned motorcycle, she couldn’t find any problem in her computer. She wanted to know if there was someone at my house, because there was a busy signal, and I calmly answered, No—no one’s using my phone right now because IT DOESN’T WORK. I explained that I had been having this problem for a long time and that one of the service technicians had told me that the underground cable needed to be repaired. He had given me all his numbers, including his pager number, and said I could call him anytime. Then he disappeared off the face of the earth and took his pager with him.

So the woman transferred me to Cable Maintenance, which didn’t have a recording, thank God, but the human looked in her computer and lo and behold didn’t see any problem, said I should call 611. I was about to break down in tears at this point, but I kept it together and dialed 611 again. The motorcycle had left, but now another guy was out there rattling garbage cans. I went back through the whole recording, from “If you are a speaker of English, press 1” (because God forbid we make any crazy assumptions) to “If you want to speak to a customer service representative, press 0.” (If you tried to trick the voice mail by pressing 0 first, it refused to comply until you’d gone through all the options.) So once again I receive the news from the cheerful canned voice that I should check my equipment. Finally, a human comes on the line, but of course it’s a different human and I have to tell the whole story again, about the missing service technician (who was probably snuffed out for telling customers it was Pac Bell’s problem and not theirs), and she made some calls while I waited, holding the greasy phone, like am I getting old or what, that I even think about how disgusting it is to hold other people’s ear grease up to my ear, like how often do you suppose someone from Pac Bell comes by and wipes off the receiver?

So the human comes back on the line and is all self-satisfied about how there’s “trouble out,” like what does that mean, and she says there’s a dial tone going out to me, which means there’s some problem between the central place where they keep the dial tones and my condo, and the soonest she can get someone out there is Saturday, between 8:00 and 5:00. So I thank her for that gigantic “window” during which I have to be home, sitting on the edge of my seat waiting, and I’ll be sure to set the alarm so as not to miss the guy when he shows up at 1 minute to 5.

And so my only consolation is that it’ll be like Christmas morning when I finally get my phone back and check my e-mail, though I asked around at the studio when I went to paint, and no one had tried to reach me and I was like oh. Well. Probably Terry or Peggy or Diane is out there worried sick about me, like Where’s Mary? Where’s Mary? and boy will they be relieved when I finally write back and tell them I’m OK.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #24 October 2002

April 29, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dramatis personae

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The grand tour

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

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

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


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


Another view of the bay


(All photos by P. DuPont.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The funeral

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

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

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

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

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

Me: What about the Jews?

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

Me: What about homosexuals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preacher: Can we continue this back at the house?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family—no longer the F word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest in peace, Skip.

[Mary McKenney]

#2 in a series… the best of the mary’zine that never made it to print…

April 25, 2009

sodden thawts

Would it be weird to start a collection of blank books and never write in them? I’m close to doing this very thing, as I stare at my “cart” page on where I have taken the first step toward purchasing three small (6″ × 4.25″) blank books with gorgeous reproductions from Eduardo Paolozzi’s Moonstrips Empire News on the covers, in an attractive slipcase yet!, for $18.95 plus shipping. Could there be anything less justifiable in this time of 40% less nest egg and 50% fewer editing jobs? Yes, the heart wants what it wants, but how to know when it’s OK to let yourself go and throw good money after something completely inessential? I have bought some really interesting and beautiful art in my day, and seeing it on my walls along with my own crazy-cool paintings doesn’t seem gratuitous at all. But to buy and display a bound book that has no excuse for being, or at least no excuse that I plan to use…?

I love blank books, especially now that there is a plethora to the nth power of beautiful, bizarre and unique ones available. For some reason, I wouldn’t think it strange to collect crosses, or anything else that has aesthetic or mysteriously subjective value, but these books are meant to be written in. Yet their practicality is often beside the point of their design, the look and the feel of them, the glossy, colorful (or leather or marbled) cover, the ribbon or elastic place marker, the gridded or lined or virgin white paper, etc.

I used to write in a journal daily and voluminously—with coffee, it was by far the best part of my day. Inspired hugely by The New Diary by Tristine Rainer, I had no rules, no expectation of sharing or even reading it again, just riffing about everything and nothing, drawing, making lists, sticking in or taping notes written elsewhere or articles I cut out of the newspaper, exploring my feelings, writing FUCK FUCK FUCK over and over again for several pages if that’s what it took. My favorite journals back then had black hard covers with red corners and opened flat with roomy, lined pages and came straight from the People’s Republic of China via Modern Times bookstore in San Francisco, until the Chinese stopped producing them or at least stopped selling them to us.

Occasionally I have succumbed to buying a blank book that I just can’t resist and have written in it for a well-intentioned page or two and then abandoned it on the bedside table or under a pile of papers on my desk because I just don’t enjoy that way of writing anymore. Now I funnel all my stray thoughts into the ‘zine (lucky you) or at least into the multitude of potential story files that will never see the light of day unless I get really, really desperate for material. Here are a few cases in point:

•    How My Body’s Production of Oxytocin after Intimate Surgical Procedures Made Me Want to Surrender Myself Utterly to Two Different—Both Extremely Unappealing—Male Gyno Doctors

•    How a Teenage Girl Held Me Hostage by Using a Hidden Phone Jack in Her Room a Block Away That Was Inexplicably Hooked into My Phone Line, Making It Impossible for Me To Dial Up {shudder} the Internet When She Talked on the Phone All Night to Her Boyfriend

•    Snowing and Blowing: Episodes 237-251

•    Reading a Year Ago That Scientists Have Discovered the Secret of Stonehenge—It Was a Burial Ground, Duh—But People Act Like It’s Still a Big Mystery

•    All the Ambiguous, Urgent Sounds Created by Electrical and Electronic Devices in the Home (“Is that the doorbell, or is my laundry done? Do I have mail, or is an ambulance pulling into my driveway?”)

•    The Millennial Generation’s Contribution to the Language by Changing the Spelling of “The” to “Teh” Because It’s Just Too Much of a Hassle To Keep Correcting the Typo

•    And a Corollary: Captioning Cute Pix and Videos of Animals with a “New Language” Called Lolspeak That Far Surpasses English in Conveying katz (& other aminals) thawts (“Wutebber u do, doan mesz wid teh kitteh”)

•    How My Long Career of Reading About Some Pretty Creepy Diseases Did Not Prepare Me for the Term “Cancer Cell Nests”—picture interlocking spiders or writhing snakes. How did such a nice word become the go-to metaphor to describe disgusting things in tight groups? And how does that change one’s mental picture of “nest egg”? When it comes to cancer cells, I prefer an empty nest.

•    Writing a New Alphabet Book in Which the Letters Aren’t A, B, and C, but A-word, B-word, C-word, etc. My thesis is that it won’t be long before our entire language (if it doesn’t succumb to Lolspeak first) will consist of nothing but euphemisms such as the ubiquitous N-word, and anyone who says the real word for N-word will be summarily arrested even if she’s talking about the word and not the people, and answering the question “Have you ever said the N-word?” will be as self-incriminating as “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

•    Finding a Beefcake Calendar That Was Hung (so to speak) in the Stall of a Women’s Bathroom at Work and Creating a Storm of Controversy by Taking It Down as a Mild Protest Against Heterogemony (hey! I thought I just made that word up, but someone beat me to it: “Heterogemony: A term that defines the hegemonic nature of heterosexuality, which, as the basic assumption of the dominant sexual group, invisibilises alternatives” [wow, “invisibilises”—I wonder how a kitteh would say that])

•    Radio DJs Talking About a Webcast They’re Watching on a Computer and Taking Calls from Listeners Who Are Also Watching and Who Are Writing Comments on the Website, and What They Are Watching Is a Guy Sleeping (so 99% of the comments are “When is he going to wake up?”), So I—Sheep, Lemming, Pick Your Metaphor—Go to the Website and Watch the Guy Sleeping, Too—Oh Wait, He Just Woke Up and Is Talking on the Phone with a Reporter About His Webcam! Ain’t This Internet Thing Grand?

I once read an article by someone who wondered why literate people—your writers, your editors—often use all lowercase letters, irregular punctuation and bizarre wordplay in their e-mails. It’s because we love playing around with words! also Punctuation?! and cAps. A very literate friend of mine and I like to chat by e-mail about certain TV shows (“Damages,” “The Shield”)—questioning each other about confusing storylines and making up idiosyncratic descriptions of the characters, such as NEM (Name Escapes Me) or BeardedGlassesGuy, FBIguy, BitchLawyer or, say, Sheriff Bullock or Ted Danson. What this tells you, obviously, besides our joy in neologizing, is that we keep forgetting minor details like major plot points. And both of us being d’un certain age, we’re this close to losing our minds anyway.

I would love to write an issue of the ‘zine half in my version of Lolspeak (“Isch schnowin agin!”) and half completely off-the-cuff/off-the-wall abbreviations and made-up words, fanciful stream-of-consciousness, full steam ahead, don’t give a damn if anyone can follow it—and, oh yeah, it all rhymes, at least intermittently. But no one would be able to decipher it and wouldn’t enjoy it if they could (like absinthe, these things are better taken in small doses). I’ve already had complaints about my few attempted raps. Maybe it’s time to make up my own damlanguage. I mean, if JimJoyce could do it….

[Interesting side note: On Merriam-Webster Online, the first definition of “neologism” is “a new word, usage, or expression”; the second is “a meaningless word coined by a psychotic.” I’m not sure how to take that. Et tu, Merriam-Webster?]

I once read a book called Anguish Languish (I just googled it, and the first result was the complete text!) published in 1956 and read on “The Arthur Godfrey Show” (“Hawaii, Hawaii” [“How are ya, how are ya”])—you kidz have sure missed a lot of great entertainment by being born so late. Anyway, the author, Howard S. Chace, wrote this book in which he took fairy tales and folk songs and substituted words that sound like the real words. “Anguish Languish” is, of course, “English Language.” Here are some lyrics to a song called “Hormone Derange.”

Harm, hormone derange,
Warder dare enter envelopes ply,
Ware soiled’em assured adage cur-itching ward
An disguise earn it clotty oil die.

I once spent a good 15 minutes raving about this fun book and reading humorous passages from it to someone I thought was a fellow language lover, and she just stared at me as if to say, “How do I get away from this person without alerting her to my utter disdain and confusion regarding this retarded book and her bizarre interest in it?”

That’s it for laffs. Here’s a more serious (though equally improbable) topic from the story files:

•    Compiling a Poetry Anthology That Would Constitute a Cryptic Autobiography of Yours Truly. Here Are Two Examples from Louise Glück.

Age 7:

Long ago, I was wounded. I lived
to revenge myself
against my father, not
for what he was—
for what I was: from the beginning of time,
in childhood, I thought
that pain meant
I was not loved.
It meant I loved.

Age 10:

I’m tense, like a child approaching adolescence.
Soon it will be decided for certain what you are,
one thing, a boy or girl. Not both any longer.
And the child thinks: I want to have a say in what happens.
But the child has no say whatsoever.

I still haven’t decided whether to order the beautiful blank books. But you’ve helped me take my mind off it for a while. Kthx.

mary’zine random redux: #19 December 2001

April 17, 2009

Wartime Edition (rated R for language and brief nudity)

Hello, people. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, it’s the wartime edition of maryzine.

When I was in Berkeley a few weeks ago, I saw posters on telephone poles advertising The Fuck The War Ball. To my lasting regret, I didn’t stop to get the details, but those lovely Anglo-Saxon words have been reverberating in my head ever since.

The times they have a’changed, all right. Back in the day, it was Make Love Not War. Now it’s Fuck the War. Where do we go from here? Nowadays, it wouldn’t be enough for John and Yoko to sit naked in bed to protest the war, they’d have to, well, you know, fuck.

But there are still flag-wavers in Berkeley, so I expect The Fuck The War Ball might get some anti-protest protesters. Perhaps a pro-war group will stage The Fuck The Fuck The War Ball Ball, which will in turn be answered by The Fuck The Fuck The Fuck The War Ball Ball Ball Ball. (Notice, in this flight of fancy, how Fuck and Ball keep getting repeated, and The War stays unchanged. That’s about how much effect The Fuck The War Ball is going to have on real life.)

I actually don’t have much to say about the war Out There. (Après la guerre, moi.) I’m experiencing my own warlike symptoms. In some weird way, I seem to be living out a parallel reality in which the armies of the night are gathering in me. Something inside me is raging, but I don’t know what or who the target is. It’s as if all the pent-up anger from my lifetime stockpile is rumbling just beneath the surface. (They don’t call me Mary Mary Quite Contrary for nothing.) I’m at war, and like The Fuck The War War, it’s an undeclared war against an unknown enemy. Am I projecting onto the world, or is the world projecting onto me? I’m a terrorist of my own self, unpredictable, unappeasable. Mentally I’m crashing into my own building, mailing anthrax letters to my own address. I’m on hyperalert for whatever I’m going to do to myself next. My inner President Bush gives stirring, morale-boosting speeches to a crowd of chanting dissidents, my alter egos. Fuck The Fuck The War The War The Ball The Ball, we echo, overpowering the voice of executive reason.

I cry out for something to be done. Call out the National Guard! Patrol the bridges! Arrest the racially profiled! Scare the citizenry! Pull around the wagons! No, that’s the wrong century!

I wanna be sedated.
—The Ramones

Terrorism and war—both the Inner and the Outer—are wreaking havoc with my personal mental health program. The psychiatrist has upgraded my dosage of anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, anti-obsessive-compulsive-disorder-sneezing-aching-coughing-so-you-can-sleep-better-to-feel-better medicine. It is my hope that 75 mg of Zoloft will soon calm the citizenry of my personal nation state. My economy is ailing, and it’s time to get out there and buy. At least I haven’t laid myself off yet.

(You think I can’t keep this up for 10 pages? Watch me.)

It’s like all this roiling, boiling feeling is rising to the top—“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” The rage may have been triggered by 9/11, but it doesn’t seem to be about that anymore, though terrorism is certainly a handy point-of-reference/excuse/public domain/mass hysteria kind of deal. It’s almost like having permission, somehow, to feel whatever I’m truly, madly, deeply feeling, or as my friend D says, “Then there are the loons like me (and I think there are a lot of us) who are actually relieved because now the outside chaos matches the inside chaos/turmoil/uncertainty/certainty of imminent death!”

Yet despite the War on Terrorism, terrorism itself has become almost passé. The news people are all: Ho hum, another person has died of anthrax, and it’s a complete mystery because she was an elderly shut-in and never got any mail. Now for our main story, Are Americans going to spend a lot of money for Christmas this year?

On the other front in my personal war against self-induced terrorism is my therapist, J. Dr. P. gives me the drugs, but J has to deal with me. She’s always trying to bring me back into my body, and I’m always trying to escape. The classic therapist question is “How do you feel about that?” but J’s question is “Where do you feel it in your body?” My answer is always the same. “I don’t know!”

Therapy doesn’t follow a straight path. Why would it? Painting doesn’t; life doesn’t. It seems to go in waves—just as I’m approaching a central stumbling block-slash-snake pit in my psyche, like, for instance, my deep and scary feelings of Fuck The World (you’re all invited to The Fuck The World Ball)—bam!—something else comes up, some crisis of relationship or work or health that calls for immediate attention, and I have once again escaped facing my personal war-mongering tendencies.

If the Zoloft were still working—or at least working the way it did pre-9/11—I could possibly escape forever. But no such luck. Actually, Jeremy told me that he’s known several people on anti-whatevers who have had the same reaction. I suspect that the medication calms you down and diverts your attention from trivial frustrations, and then Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back in the Water, your inner Godzilla rears its ugly head. (Godzilla, Jaws, whatever.)

By the way, Terry pointed out the synchronicity of the word “God” in Godzilla, which completely escaped my attention in last issue’s riff about the tableau on the back of my washing machine (Godzilla v. Buddha), but you can’t go home again to already-overblown analogies, so never mind.

Anyway, I was at therapy one morning recently, complaining about my constant headaches and other psychosomatic preoccupations, when I told J how angry I’ve been feeling since 9/11. I started crying, which is par for the course, and got up to retrieve the Kleenex from her bookshelf. She just moved our sessions to a new office, so the accoutrements so necessary to the therapeutic process are not yet in place, including an end table for the couch. I brought the Kleenex box back to the couch and “jokingly” said, “I’ll just put it on the TABLE” and dropped the box where the table should have been. Even as the Kleenex box was falling to the floor, I realized how much aggression there was behind my “joke.”

J is nothing if not sharp as a freakin’ TACK, so she immediately said, “Do that again—but organize it.” My somatic task was to exaggerate the gesture, bring the anger out from hiding behind my sarcastic wit. So I picked up the Kleenex box again and tried to throw it to the floor instead of just letting it drop. This was surprisingly difficult to do. I kept working at it—I must have thrown it down 10 times or more—and discovered that I was afraid to “hurt” the Kleenex (or something that the Kleenex represented?—Après la Kleenex, moi?) The box was starting to get torn and crumpled, and the tissues kept threatening to fall out. It was really strange to see how afraid I was to let my anger out, even against an inanimate object. (But then some physicists think subatomic particles are sentient beings. I kid you not.) (2009 update: That’s probably just as ignorant as Sarah Palin complaining about “fruit fly research in Paris, France, I kid you not.” For all I know, sentient subatomic particles are the Drosophila melanogaster of the physics world.)

So then J decided to give me something to abuse that would be a little more sturdy, so she rolled up a throw/blanket/shawl kind of thing that was on the back of the couch and told me to “beat it.” I started to leave—no—I started to bang it on the couch cushion. She wanted me to really get into it and even say words—whatever came to me—as I hit the couch. At first, little pipsqueak “nos” and “fucks” came out. But gradually, I lost some of my self-consciousness and managed to make a few loud noises, NO, NO, NO, as I beat that cushion into submission.

“What did you learn in therapy today?”
“Watch out or I’ll beat you with this SHAWL.”

When J let me stop, I had little time to be relieved, because then she wanted me to use the beating-something-with-every-fiber-of-my-physical-being VOICE to tell her how angry I was. It didn’t even have to make sense, it was just a way to practice coming from this other place. But that was even harder than beating the couch. All my so-called anger, even when I was making it up—“How dare you not bring me coffee this morning?”—came out in this thin, teary whine that I immediately recognized as my natural voice. I just couldn’t get down in my diaphragm and even pretend to be angry. I kept having an irresistible urge to laugh or make a joke—ah, what is that they say about the hostility in humor?—or I’d start crying again. The experience was mortifying—but then, “else what’s a therapy for?”

As I was trying to summon up my angry voice, this great analogy came to me. (When I’m trying to get out of working on somatic patterns and feeling feelings in my body, I like to impress J with my brilliant metaphorical skills.) I told her that I felt like Moses parting the Red Sea. (Inflated much?) I felt as if my attempt to speak with a clear, angry voice was like Moses parting the waters and then having to walk through the dry path with all his people while the temporarily suspended waves on either side threatened to drown them all. (Dry path = my anger; waves = my whiny tears.) I tried to fit J into the analogy, but casting her as the Pharaoh didn’t go over real well, and I realized she wasn’t chasing me anyway, she was on the other side of the sea urging me on. I said I didn’t know what was on the other side of the sea for Moses, and she said “the wilderness, the unknown.” That sounded about right. She also pointed out that Moses never claimed to know what he was doing, he was just obeying God, and that sounded about right, too—at least the not-knowing-what-he-was-doing part.

The reason this exercise was so hard for me was that I have perfected my mother’s art of “expressing” anger through silence and withdrawal, which had the all-important safety feature of putting her out of reach of a counterattack. The other person (usually me) could use the same tactic back at her, but then nothing was ever aired and no one was ever happy. Conversely, my father, a helpless invalid, raged and hollered all the livelong day and it never got him anywhere, because my mother could literally walk away from him. One time when he was bellowing about something or other—she had taken too long to come back from the store, or she had leaned her breasts on the table while playing Scrabble, and Vince, another guy with multiple sclerosis, had been eyeing them—she hauled him into his wheelchair and wheeled him out of the house, down the ramp, and out to our deserted country road where he could sit and rage at the woods to his heart’s content. Naturally, that stopped him cold. My mother never lost a fight.

Lately, I’ve seen what a dead end this tactic of angry withdrawal truly is, but I’ve despaired of learning new tricks at my ripe old age. It was probably a dead end for my mother, too, but at least she had us kids to pass the silent gene on to. I’ve noticed that my sister’s deepest expression of anger is a heartfelt, sarcastically tinged “Huh.” Since my mother was an aspiring writer, you’d think she would be a natural talker, a creative wordsmith of emotion. (But then my father, the Irish talker, never had the urge to read or write.) But I’m reminded of something Adair Lara wrote: “… you have to be pretty good at language to get the full savagery from silence.”

So my assignment for the next few weeks is to beat the bejesus (bemoses?) out of my mattress and holler like a banshee while I’m doing it. It should be easier to do this without an audience, although I’ll probably worry about my neighbor Kim hearing me through the wall. I just can’t seem to admit to myself that it’s the sound and fury itself that scares me.

This is what I dreamed after that therapy session:

I have a PENIS, which is fairly new, and I’m looking at it and thinking it doesn’t look very big. I remember that most guys measure theirs, so I decide to do that. I feel down at the base of it to see where to measure from, but then I remember that you’re supposed to measure it when it’s erect. As I have that thought, I immediately start to get erect, and the penis gets longer and longer and curves up and touches me between my eyes. I’m so impressed.

I also dreamed that I was really angry at a guy wearing bright orange pants, and I yelled at him and pushed him down and started shoving him with my foot.

Pandora’s Box much?

So, getting back to the world Out There, it’s becoming harder and harder to read the newspaper these days. There’s just too much information to absorb—every day, some shocking new report of a world that has forever changed. Take this headline from the S.F. Chronicle of November 11: “People turn to food to ease terror anxiety.” I was floored when I read this. A proven link between food consumption and anxiety? Get out! I scanned the article for more details about this amazing finding.

People across the country have turned to food—from chocolate to mashed potatoes to peanut butter and jelly—to deal with the anxiety of the Sept. 11 attacks and anthrax scares, according to dietitians and psychologists.

“What’s one more chocolate?” asks Almquist, 24. “It seems a little strange to be obsessing about something like that when there’s so much more going on.”

Zumberge, 49, typically would think twice about indulging his sweet coffee craving. “But now? Not so much,” he says.

[Some] say they don’t need the added stress of carefully watching what they eat. “Why do I want to put myself through that right now? There’s enough stuff going on,” said Johnson, 36, a Newport Beach receptionist.

I skip to the end of the article to see if there is some explanation for this stunning new evidence of the mind-body-food connection.

Clinical psychologist Emanuel Maidenberg said Johnson’s feelings are not surprising. “Food of that kind is typically associated with pleasant feelings—comfort, relaxation, calm,” said Maidenberg.

Whoa. Talk about food for thought. I put down my bag of chips—no, actually, I stuff another fistful in my mouth as I consider this possibly life-changing information. Could I possibly be—gasp—using food as a way to deal with my war-induced stress? I review my food choices over the past couple of months. Hmm. A steady diet of hamburgers, enchiladas, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, popcorn, chocolate, Ben & Jerry’s….. I know I have to take a long, hard look at myself to see if my eating habits have been affected by 9/11. Let me think. Nope, nothing’s changed.

This is how I torture myself. One day I bought a Hershey bar and put it in the cupboard, hoping to forget about it so that when I was desperately wanting a treat sometime, and I despaired of finding anything suitable in the house that would be a good substitute for whatever it was I really wanted, I’d suddenly spring up like Einstein discovering relativity and cry “Eureka! I have chocolate!” The problem with that plan is that first you have to forget the chocolate is there. I wouldn’t let myself have it if I couldn’t forget about it, but if I could forget about it, I wouldn’t have come up with such a ridiculous scheme in the first place. I was in a mental prison of my own making, and a bar of chocolate with almonds was my jailer. The more I rattled the bars of my cage, the harder the jailer laughed. “Eat me!” he cried. (I know it was a he, because it had nuts.) (Oh God. Now I’m channeling the teenage boys who used to torture me with this “joke” when I was working at the snack bar in the park.)

To distract myself from the thought of food, I hurry past the terror-anxiety news to the entertainment section of the paper, where I hope to escape into fantasy. But once again I am faced with shocking revelations:

“Shallow Hal” actress found she wasn’t the center of attention in a fat suit.

You’ve got to be kidding me! I can’t take this!

In this movie, Gwyneth Paltrow, beautiful movie star and daughter of a beautiful movie star and a movie producer, plays a 300-pound woman, a role for which she wears a fat suit.

She donned the fat suit and makeup for a day and walked around the lobby of a New York hotel…. At first she was concerned that the crowds in the lobby would figure out who she was right away. To her surprise, no one did. “People wouldn’t even look at me,” Paltrow says with astonishment. “They wouldn’t make eye contact with me at all. It was awful.”

The actress says she experienced a similar reaction whenever she wore the fat suit on the set. “I felt no sexual energy from men,” she says.

After I pick myself up off the floor, I go straight to the cupboard, fall on the Hershey bar, and tear off the wrapper. I think about saving half, but—ah-hahahahahaha. Later that afternoon, I have that moment I had been waiting for—the moment of despairing of finding anything suitable in the house that would be a good substitute for whatever it was I really wanted. But by then, of course, it’s too late.

C’est la guerre.

I’m going to lick this food thing yet. But first, I have more to say.

I do not seek novelty.
—Kay Ryan, poet

I am an enjoyer of repeat experience. Others are drawn to the new; I’m drawn to the been there–done that–enjoyed that–let’s do that again. I generally order the same food in the same restaurants, and I can identify my menu item of choice in just about every restaurant I’ve ever been in. I’m a serial monogamist when it comes to food. In Ann Arbor one summer, when I was 23 and very much alone, I ate a chili dog for lunch every single day. Peggy can attest that I have been searching for a chili dog of that caliber ever since. Maybe it was my need for comfort, not the chili dog itself, that made it such a tasty, satisfying treat—the old mouth-of-the-beholder theory.

Actually a lot of my favorite comfort food comes from Michigan, which is odd in one sense, because my home state is not exactly a culinary paradise. But I guess the whole point of comfort food is to remind you of your childhood. Except, if I wanted to be reminded of my childhood, you’d think I’d be craving pasties (not the little circles that cover a stripper’s nipples but a horrible vegetable pie that the U.P. is known for); creamed salmon and peas on toast (known to my ex-Army dad as shit-on-a-shingle); boiled New England dinner; a dozen varieties of “hot dish” (hamburger or tuna casserole with noodles and canned vegetables); and lime or orange Jell-O with fruit cocktail suspended inside. True, in the summer there was corn on the cob (13 for a quarter, picked that day from the farm next door), potato salad, baked beans, hot dogs—to this day, my favorite food is picnic food—and my mother was an excellent baker. She made the world’s best pie crust—I have yet to taste its equal, and that goes for all the fancy-schmancy crumbles and crisps I’ve had in Bay Area restaurants. Sometimes, all we’d have for supper was strawberry shortcake, if the strawberries were fresh and that’s all anybody (i.e., my mother) wanted. Sometimes we’d have only rice porridge, a Danish rice soup that was basically dessert by any other name—rice cooked in milk, to which we added butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar at the table.

As a kid, I generally refused to play with any gender-appropriate gifts I got—especially dolls—but I did like the little Easy Bake oven I got for Christmas one year. Down in the basement, next to the wringer washer, I would bake little chocolate cupcakes from the tiny boxes of cake mix that came with the oven. I think what I liked was the miniature size of everything—the oven itself, the little pans and pink spatula, the bite-sized cupcakes—and the privacy, the solo adventure in micro-cookery that seemed almost scientific in its precision. Obviously, my mother had an ulterior motive for giving me this gift, because she kept hauling me up from the basement to the grown-up kitchen, where I was supposed to transfer my newfound culinary skills to making pork roasts and boiled potatoes for the family. I never really made the transition—I had my own ideas about what I was going to do with my life. When I got the Junior Betty Crocker cookbook as another gift (I never realized how pointed so many of those gifts were), I was drawn to the recipes primarily as esthetic arrangements. I wanted to make what looked good in the pictures. I was more interested in the art—the red tomato soup offsetting the white and yellow of the egg salad sandwiches—than in throwing together whatever leftovers were in the fridge.

I also tried out some of my irrepressible religious humor when I made this supper:
“It’s like we’re eating the body and blood of Jesus.”
“I say, it’s like we’re eating the body and blood of Jesus.”
“That’s enough,” says Mom.

I thought of my Easy Bake oven experiences when I read about a panel of professional chefs who competed in the Easy Bake Oven Bake-Off. They had to use all the creativity and skills at their disposal to bake their dessert specialties in the tiny toy oven, which is nothing but an aluminum box powered by a 100-watt light bulb. The winning entries were a huckleberry tart topped with goat cheese ice cream and a chocolate flourless cake. The most surprising thing I read in the article was that the Easy Bake oven “was introduced to the market in 1963.” I figured it must be a typo, because that made me a junior in high school when I was playing cupcake chef down in the basement. And why was my mother giving me such a thing at that age anyway? Well, that’s more understandable. For my 21st birthday, she gave me Pat Boone’s book of advice for teens called ‘Twixt Twelve and Twenty. I guess she couldn’t do the math.

I was going to say that this ‘50s nostalgia thing is really getting out of hand, but I guess instead it’s this early ‘60s nostalgia thing that’s getting out of hand. However, I’m pretty sure paint-by-number was around when I was an actual child. Believe it or not, even that is becoming trendy, in an all-things-kitschy-are-in-again kind of way. Some guy has a huge collection of these paintings and is trying to make sociological/historical/cultural/financial hay out of this supreme example of noncreativity. In the article I read, he was quoted as saying, “Some people actually painted these paintings to hang on their walls,” and I thought, “Yeah, you got my family pegged.” Well, my mother never did that, but my aunt put up the paintings that my cousins did. I am so torn right now between being sarcastic about the condescension of trend-spotters who exploit unsophisticated people for financial gain and getting all condescending myself about the unworldly pleasures of the people to whom I was born. Or maybe I’m not really theirs, maybe they found me in a basket in the bulrushes. (I am inflated much.)

But when it’s all you can do to survive and raise a family and you aren’t exposed to art (except Norman Rockwell—who’s also making a comeback, by the way) or music (except Lawrence Welk, ‘nuff said) or books (except possibly Reader’s Digest condensed books), you really don’t know any better. And that is the eternal shame in being working class (a.k.a. white trash) in this country. You don’t have the right clothes, the right accent, or the right knowledge about the right things, because you never had the financial means to buy yourself 4 years of leisure (a.k.a. college) to become more discerning. If you’re lucky, your kids manage to elevate themselves enough to get an education and come back to make fun of you for your primitive preferences. I could go on and on about class and about what it’s like to have come from that background and then try to fit in with people who assume you had the same privileged background they did, and maybe someday I will.

But for now, I think I’ll call it a day. It’s a day. No comments from you-know-who (starts with “P” and ends with “e”). Our latest noteworthy encounter was when I gave him a “bath” with a waterless shampoo that smells (a.k.a. reeks) of tea tree oil, with which I had had no prior experience. It was frustrating not to be able to explain to him how lucky he was, that it was this or get hauled down to the professional cat shampooers for the full treatment. (They should have a cat wash, like a car wash; just strap ‘em in and run ‘em through.) Afterward, I felt sorry for him, because he kept trying to get away from the smell by getting up off the floor and hunkering down on straight-backed chairs for a few moments before moving on. I knew just how he felt. It’s hell not to be able to get away from yourself when you want to. I’ll have more to say about that next time, I hope—after beating my mattress with a towel every day and yelling FUCK YOU to the universe (The Fuck The Universe Ball, why not), possibly getting myself some bright orange pants in which to haul around my gigantic new PENIS—oh, and I suppose BALLS go along with that. And so we come full circle.

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