Posts Tagged ‘Internet’

mary’zine #72: February 2015

February 23, 2015


best way to begin an autobiography

I was born, obviously. —Alyssa C.


January 2, 2015, 3:33 a.m.

I like to think that the “new year” really doesn’t affect me. It’s arbitrary, after all: dividing up time as if it were loaves and fishes. I don’t like rituals or ceremonies, either; maybe I don’t like symbolism, which seems weak and helplessly hopeful in comparison to what is. (Krishnamurti: “Hope is a terrible thing.”) Hope, resolution, affirmation are all about “the future,” as if the next arbitrary span of time may contain and reveal something that does not exist in the present moment.

And yet… sitting at my desk in the middle of the night, after spending several hours editing a paper on the inactivation of HIV in certain cells by certain proteins, I feel strangely satisfied. It doesn’t feel like a “new day” or year, exactly, but like I’m where I’m supposed to be, as if there really is a plan, a “supposed to be.” I love being awake at this hour of the night. Brutus and Luther are raising hell in the background, diving onto tissue paper left over from Christmas as if it were a pile of leaves, batting around the balls that “Aunt Terry” gave them when she was visiting. I just drank a Frappuccino, fattening liquid of choice, though I should be trying to sleep so I can talk somewhat coherently to P on the phone in the morning.

My house is full of color—from my paintings and a couple of my friends’ paintings that I somehow bamboozled them out of, and from all the many gifts my niece, sisters, and friends have given me. I am running out of both wall space and surfaces on which to display them. In my “office,” which is just an arbitrary space carved out of my large upstairs loft-like room, I have a dollhouse exactly like the one I had as a kid—maybe even the same one, for all I know. My sisters found it at a garage sale and bought it for me. Because of my fascination with bucking trends and defying the conventional, I don’t fill it with miniature furniture. When I realized I could indeed use it for anything, it was as freeing as when I first discovered that I can paint anything, or I could buy a red phone, back in the olden day of those bulky, plugged-in, dial-dinosaurs. I must have a strong streak of conventionalism after all—I fight it so much while stubbornly holding on to the idea that I have to do what I should do, when it really doesn’t matter. My mother was practical down to her bones, to the point where decoration seemed frivolous and we kids bringing her flowers from the woods across the road were “bringing dirt and bugs into the house.” She had very strict ideas about what was acceptable and what wasn’t. I’ve written before about how she told me I was wrong when I wrapped a present for my aunt Doris by positioning a large flower—part of the pattern on the wrapping paper—in the center of the package: early artistic leanings not to be fulfilled for many years. For Christmas and birthdays she bought me lots of boxed craft kits, for sand painting or jewelry making, paint-by-number sets and coloring books, but I don’t think it ever occurred to her to encourage me to let loose with paper and pens or paint: Creativity was marketed, not really used to create.

I’ve always struggled against the constraints I possibly inherited or at least was conditioned to, so my life has been a series of amazing and mundane discoveries, such as, Why can’t I have a red phone?? It’s the same process I experience in painting. The battle is never really won, between wanting to do the “right” thing and eventually discovering again that true satisfaction is in the freedom of making it up as I go. I love painting fictitious animals and exaggerated, unrealistic human figures with tubes pumping rays of light and color outside the body, and internal organs and contorted limbs not known to science or medicine. The juxtaposition of my creative self (my true self, I like to think) and my expertise in logic and language seems like it should be contradictory, but somehow it isn’t. I can have both, I can be both, and more.

Among many other Christmas gifts this year, my sister Barb gave me some Yooper memorabilia: a full-size license plate (“YOOPER—You betcha!”), a key ring in the shape of MI, with the U.P. designated “Michigan’s better half” (might be some overcompensation going on there) and magnets: “It’s a YOOPER thing… EH!,” “Michigan YOOPER Great Lakes Splendor,” and “Yooper Girl.” Sure, this kind of thing is pretty hokey, and commercial to its core, but she also found, in Schloegels’ gift shop, a small elephant made out of recycled aluminum… from Kenya! UP here we are not completely out of the loop, or the Yoop. On the dollhouse I have an old bendy girl from a McDonald’s Happy Meal and a twisted series of plastic snap-on pieces coming out of the chimney. The other day, when I was trying to make a dent in the picking up and putting away of both the detritus and the gifts of Christmastime, I noticed some red yarn on a decorated gift bag, so I impulsively tied the big Yooper license plate to the chimney on the back side of the dollhouse. Noticing it tonight was part of what made me feel satisfied with this never-to-be-imagined reentry into my home life / homeland past that I am making into my own image.

I have also discovered several warm, intelligent, creative women here whom I have been gradually meeting in person after finding them on Facebook. Facebook (!): the medium intended for young people to hook up with each other and then text back and forth when they’re in the same room, but which has become, instead, a meeting ground and philosophical forum for us oldsters to ruminate, Laugh Out Loud, and reconnect with old friends. We boomers have taken over everything. This happened a few years ago with the Honda Element, a vehicle I still want, though I understand it isn’t being made anymore. All the profit-mongers are trying to appeal to the 18-35 age group and here we are, in our 50s, 60s, and beyond acting as if we still matter, we still have preferences and a little bit of discretionary retirement income and, in all the ways that count, are as young at heart as we were back in our formative years running from tear gas and cops at antiwar demonstrations. It was a great time to be young, the ‘60s, I tell you what (unless you were a draftee or a Republican).


I don’t know why that reminds me, but I have no outline or grand plan, so here goes:

fd8ea8f60f66a2e88aa74e9dddb216fd  I am addicted to Pinterest, which, long story, but I came across some images of the little drawings that medieval scribes added to the margins of manuscripts they were supposedly copying verbatim (while also adding their own stories and interpretations of myths or long-past real or imagined events, which, Holy Bible). So I was “pinning” some of them onto my Art & Illustration board, and I found one that showed a man (?) on stilts holding (breastfeeding?) a baby and carrying a vessel of some sort on his head… along with a young woman and a bird down on the groundIMG_0966 doing I don’t know what. It’s a striking image, because the very idea of walking on stilts, let alone carrying a baby while doing so, is anathema to me. I posted the image on my grown godchild’s Facebook page, because she and her husband are “stilt-walkers” and can be seen far and wide doing their thing in parades, festivals, and (by the way) at their own wedding. I figured they’d like this ancient example of their art, but I was surprised when Kelly sent me a photo of her breastfeeding their darling, godly god-like child while on stilts. It was a wonderful case of synchronicity, and both my godchild and godson-in-law were amazed at seeing the medieval image. Someday I suppose Larkin will be accompanying them on their stilt-walking travels, hence keeping the hippie spirit alive for two generations past the time that we boomers mostly gave up on it.


A few days ago, I started writing this ‘zine with the predictable travel story about flying out to San Francisco for a painting intensive. But it felt canned, like I was just describing events and thoughts and encounters by rote. I have a lot to say about the trip, and about the painting itself, but I need it to come out naturally, or not at all. So that’s a peek into my process, in case you wanted to know.

Sometimes I think that Life is not New at all, but is mostly a rediscovery of things we’ve always known but have to keep relearning—as if we constitutionally consist of the New but go through this bodily process called Life in order to experience the New being remade from scratch, over and over again. Blissful stillness seems to be our natural state—how can Oneness be anything but Still?—because in truth that is all there Is, no differentiation, no duality. But our difficult, subjective, isolative charade of Life seems to be a reward for all that Oneness & Beingness, not a punishment as we sometimes think. There are things we can only experience in apparent separateness, such as the exquisite coming together in unlikely communion, and I’m not talking about religion here, or even “spirituality.” Just Truth, in its elusive but eternally yearned for and occasionally seen wonderment, blazing like ten thousand suns. One of my favorite fantasies is that “all will be revealed” after we die—like there will be an intimate workshop with a kindly old teacher in a seminar room with a voice that might call itself God, but not like “God” as we imperfectly imagine It. But it’s unlikely that this will happen, because we will, by definition, be returning / dissolving into the Oneness, and it is merely a childish desire to stand outside Time and Space and maintain both our precious individuality and our blissful surrender to “the time before we were born.” Without duality, you can’t really have it both ways, know what I mean?

I’ve been at this for almost 2 hours now, time for a break. You may talk amongst yourselves until Yooper Girl returns.


my all-time favorite explanation for what’s happening in the world; from 1992!—but it applies now more than ever

[From We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse, by James Hillman and Michael Ventura (HarperCollins, 1992)]

“Ventura: … My feeling is that this worldwide disintegration is going to play itself out no matter what, and it’s going to take a while, a century or two—a century or two of a kind of chaos, possibly a corporate nightmare, I don’t know, but call it a Dark Age. We had a technologically primitive Dark Age, now we’re going to have a technologically extraordinary Dark Age. But you remember what philosopher Miguel de Unamuno said: ‘We die of cold and not of darkness.’

“Just around when he was turning thirteen my kid came home one night, after dark, sat on the couch, and in a kind of fury suddenly burst out with, ‘It’s fucked, it’s so fucked, man, the whole thing is fucking fucked. What do you do in this world, man?’ What could I say to him, that things are gonna be all right, when they’re not? That it’ll be okay when he grows up and gets a job, when it won’t? I got a little crazy and impassioned and I said something like this:

“That we are living in a Dark Age. And we are not going to see the end of it, nor are our children, nor probably our children’s children. And our job, every single one of us, is to cherish whatever in the human heritage we love and to feed it and keep it going and pass it on, because this Dark Age isn’t going to go on forever, and when it stops those people are gonna need the pieces that we pass on. They’re not going to be able to build a new world without us passing on whatever we can—ideas, art, knowledge, skills, or just plain old fragile love, how we treat people, how we help people: that’s something to be passed on.

“And all of this passing things on, in all its forms, may not cure the world now—curing the world now may not be a human possibility—but it keeps the great things alive. And we have to do this because as Laing said, who are we to decide that it is hopeless? And I said to my son, if you wanted to volunteer for fascinating, dangerous, necessary work, this would be a great job to volunteer for—trying to be a wide-awake human during a Dark Age and keeping alive what you think is beautiful and important.”


The first thing I thought of when I read this was, of course, the painting I’ve been doing for 35 years. We are a small band of people who explore the self (for lack of a better word) through a process that uses our consciousness—that which Krishnamurti said is the same for everyone, not similar—to explore what the mind, useful as it is, cannot touch. It feels a little like going down to the bottom of the ocean and painting what you “see,” with no need for oxygen or protective devices. This is an ocean without a name, and it is completely worthy of our trust, despite the fears we have all been conditioned to. Indeed, it is the very apotheosis of the Unknown, which governs us each deep down. It can be frightening to face the Unknown, even in such a seemingly superficial way as applying paint to paper. But what results is wisdom, compassion, empathy, humility, humanity.

In a happy marriage of technology and this process that is so much more than an art form, I finally agreed to Barbara’s suggestion that I join a web conferencing site called Zoom so that I can paint at home while being in audio and visual connection with classes going on in San Francisco ( It’s a different experience than painting at the studio, because there is more human contact there, obviously, complete with conversations and hugs, but it makes it possible for me to paint more than once or twice a year. (I don’t have the self-discipline to paint completely on my own.) So here is a case where technology aids the passing on of what we love. It has given me a new lease on painting, without the expense and torture of travel. And just today I painted something I’ve never painted (or even thought of) before: eyeball bullets. Happy will be the future people who discover that.


I’ve been thinking about how childhood exists on two levels: the outer and the inner. If I tell the story of my childhood, what comes to mind are the events that happened around me or were visited upon me, the story. Of course, I had reactions to those events, and lots of thoughts, tears and fears around most of them. But what still has power for me now are a few things that were deeply personal and meaningful, not involving family, school, or indeed anyone else.

There was a time when I was very close to nature… not the thought of it or the appreciation of it as an idea, but the essence. One of the advantages of nature was that it got me out of the house. I could be alone and travel without fear through woods, picking a spot in the cedar grove way behind us on what used to be my grandfather’s land, and reading or just sitting, watching the birds and smelling the fragrances all around me.  My favorite thing to do was find and pick flowers, especially buttercups (also called cowslips, I think). I also liked violets and the rarely seen jack-in-the-pulpit, but there was something almost mystical about buttercups. I crave them even now—the frisson I would get from just touching them again, seeking them out in a semi-swampy part of the woods. They are still out there, I hear, but not where I used to find them. “My” woods are gone, or the property has become privately owned and not to be trespassed upon. And yet I have not driven out on those county roads where local people say buttercups have been sighted for a brief time in the spring. Maybe the actual flowers are not as important anymore, but something in me considers them one of the hallmarks of my young life.

The other thing I think about a lot are the little books I used to make that I would fill with images cut out of magazines and seed catalogs. Those flowers—extravagantly lush pansies and roses—pasted into arrangements with people and furniture before I knew the word collage—were equally precious to me, for all their unreality. I would be tempted to sell my soul for just one look at those books again, though I might be disappointed. I would be expecting some mystical (that word again) intelligence, some disconnect and reconnect with a creative world unlike the world of craft, like when you find your teenage diary and think you’ll encounter wisdom you didn’t know you had, and then it turns out to be mundane and predictable. I didn’t keep a diary then, anyway, because I had to hide my inner self from my intrusive mother. She wouldn’t have valued the collage books, and clearly didn’t value the real flowers, so those were two things that were solely my own: art as privacy, as distance, as a marker of my true self. Naturally, she threw out the books, like she did everything else from my childhood except, inexplicably, a crayon drawing for which I won a blue ribbon in kindergarten. She did value competition and achievement. The drawing wasn’t a great example of creativity, it was quite rational and cold-blooded, in fact. It was a barnyard scene with the requisite chickens, barn, and a farmer with a pitchfork that was touching the ground although his feet were not. There was a fence that I reasoned would hide the horse I drew behind it, so you could only see the top half of the horse—but the fence was just posts and a few horizontal pieces of wood, not solid at all! At the age of four or five, I hadn’t yet developed the great logic skills with which I have made a career.

So every now and then I think about those collage books and I know that I could make them again, though they would be very different, of course. I haven’t done it. It’s the memory I want to keep close, not necessarily the actual craft or art. I do something that is similar in some respects but doesn’t involve paste or access to magazines (I subscribe to only one, the New Yorker, which isn’t big on colorful images). I mentioned above that I am quite addicted to Pinterest, which for the longest time I couldn’t imagine the point of. You create “boards” online, that you name and then fill with images from the Internet, many of them from followers or those you follow. It’s not the same as creating art, but there is a particular pleasure in gathering these images. My boards are not highly organized or comprehensive—which is fine because it doesn’t matter. I now know that there are an infinite number of art pieces in the world, from doodles and illustrations to abstract paintings, sculpture, and blown glass. I’m not much interested in realism, which would not come as a surprise to you if you’ve seen my paintings. I can almost breathe the rightness and richness of works by Joan Miró or Franz Kline, but my Art & Illustration board makes no distinction between great art and the simpler shapes and colors found in magazines. I enjoy color and form and value them more highly than words, ironically, considering I’m an editor.


I think my sister Barb deserves a blue ribbon for her response to my Facebook entry, “I used to think I was a prodigy, but now I think I’m a late bloomer.” Her response: “Does that make you a Baby Bloomer?” (W)it runs in the family, I guess.


San Francisco > home

2 Sertraline, 2 Excedrin, 1 Tagamet, 2 Dramamine, 2 Advil, 1 lorazepam. That’s what it took to get me home from the painting intensive in San Francisco in early December 2014. Each pill had a specific job to do. I am not one to turn my nose up at a pill. Lorazepam, in particular, is a life-changer. The side of my right foot had been throbbing for hours; I thought it was just from wearing shoes all week, but it was actually the dreaded restless legs syndrome, which, I wish they would think of a more impressive name for it because it is neurologically ruthless! Just this side of unbearable.

I had gotten up at 2 a.m., after about an hour and a half of sleep, so Terry and I could return our rental car to Alamo at SFO and get through all the check-in and security business in time for my 6 a.m. flight. I was exhausted and slept for almost 3 hours of the 4-hour flight, a mitzvah of the highest order. I’m pretty sure my mouth was hanging open the whole time, and I remember saying something out loud that I mercifully did not remember once I woke up. I had already known for a few days that there would be no blizzard in Chicago, which, once again, mitzvah.

This next observation is quintessentially “white” of me, but I am quintessentially white, with Northern blood flowing through all my ancestors and into my own veins, along with a Northern temperament, though I couldn’t tell you exactly what that is.

My seatmate in first class was a black man, professional-looking, somewhat younger than me. That’s right, I said black man right up front instead of holding this information back and later referring casually to his mocha-colored skin. I’ve read stories in which the white author used this gimmick (as I think of it) in order to appear to be color blind. I’m not color blind, I can see just fine, but I had no issue sitting next to this man, nor did I feel the need to be obsequious in the way of white liberals wanting approval for their open-mindedness. I have limited direct experience with black people. (If we say “African American,” we should call white people “European American,” but that isn’t going to happen. The majority is the default and gets to be called “people” or “men” whereas, say, women writers or black scholars are considered outliers, a social subspecies.) But I read, and from what I have read by black people about their daily experiences with clueless whites, I try not to repeat the same mistakes, mostly by keeping in mind the late poet Pat Parker’s admonition to “forget that I’m black; never forget that I’m black.” It is indeed possible to keep both things in mind. It’s a matter of respect.

I don’t know why I like to start my travel sagas at the end and then go back in time. It might have something to do with my mother’s habit of reading the newspaper from back to front. That’s how I read The New Yorker now. It’s comforting somehow. It’s like hiding something from yourself and then being delighted when you come across it.

The day’s roster of pills gave me a strange mix of feelings by the time we landed in Green Bay. I had to wait around for a United employee to find my suitcase—clearly marked by a big orange PRIORITY tag. Do words not mean anything anymore? I had been planning to have lunch at El Sarape but was too tired to go out of my way and then attempt to drive after a heavy meal. I could hardly stay awake as it was, and it was a great relief to arrive home unscathed. After a brief flurry of interest from the cats, I once again slept, but it took me several days to feel rested again.



As always, I had dreaded the trip and all the various unknowns I would be faced with. But Terry didn’t want to go without me, and Barbara was quite insistent that I was needed there and needed to be there. And it was true. I had an amazing week, which I think I always say. But it’s always true, which is the real motivation to return.

It may have been day 2, maybe even day 1, when I shared in the group that “my molester” had contacted me a few days before and wanted me to do some minor favor for him. It had been 25 years since our last contact, and that only by phone, and 55 or more years since the events. A close friend I told about this urged me to “let it go”—it had happened a long time ago, and he surely didn’t know he had done anything wrong, had probably (a) forgotten all about it or (b) thought it was consensual. So, in the group, I was wondering if I was supposed to “let it go,” and if so, how, and I also acknowledged that I had “dined out” (as they say) on the story, as if it were a badge of honor, courage, or at least victimhood to have this in my past. And it wasn’t just the molestation. His driving me to school on the first day of eighth grade was, I believe, what triggered my year-long phobia about throwing up in class. I was anxious about possibly being late, for one thing, and resentful that my mother could not have cared less about such common teenage anxiety; after all, she’s the mother who turned around on a divided highway and went against oncoming traffic because she “had to get back” to a missed exit.

Part of what confused me about X, “my molester,” was that he had called his parents’ house the morning after my mother died, specifically to offer his condolences to me. I was in shock, half because of my mother’s death and half just hearing his voice (his mother, my aunt, had invited me next door for lunch). His older brother R was in the other room talking to my uncle about everyday things (one thing he contributed at lunch was his belief that a prostate exam was “proven” to be as painful as childbirth) and didn’t once speak to me about my mother. X and I had a perfectly pleasant conversation, in the way of girls or women speaking to boys or men who have done them harm: Somehow there’s a code, of fear or of inappropriateness, in accordance to which we don’t confront them, we keep it all inside, blame ourselves instead of them, and so on. But I was struck by X’s apparent sympathy and lack of self-consciousness as if, indeed, he felt there was nothing between us that warranted being nervous, or maybe even that he felt a bond with me because of those events in the cedar grove and in our basement that were humiliating for me but clearly pleasurable for him.

So I could see the wisdom of my friend’s saying I should let that past go, and I didn’t know if I was resisting that because it had become an integral part of my victim identity. Fortunately, in painting, there’s really no such thing as past or present, and the future, if it exists, is completely open. So I painted him and me, staying with the core feelings, and I did feel somewhat better just letting it be rather than trying to force a letting go. But Barbara came along and pointed out that I hadn’t painted any part of him touching me, which I’m sure was deliberate, though not conscious. So I extended the reach of his painted self, barely crossing the boundary of my painted body with black tendrils. Barbara urged me again and again to go as far as I could. I had to paint him getting into me somehow (lines going into my eyes and mouth), and even then she had to urge me (without saying in so many words) to see the part I was still avoiding, which was our lower halves. So I ended up with a painting I hated to look at, and I still don’t know the extent to which I have “let it go” or touched something deep inside that I had never allowed myself to feel.


It seems rather ironic that I had such pleasant encounters with men on this trip. It started on the smallish plane I take from Green Bay to Chicago. I was struggling to wedge myself into the single seat on one side, and the man across from me had two larger seats to himself. He generously offered to switch places with me, and then we kept up a conversation until we got in the air. Turns out he’s a pilot for Delta (we were flying United), and he told me several stories about awful flights he had flown. He was very solicitous about my comfort, I think partly because of the cane I take with me so I can make it through the airports more easily. (A cane is an obvious sign that something isn’t right.) I told him I was going to S.F. to paint, and described the process very generally. He said his 16-year-old daughter is creative, a writer. He said she’s very protective of her writing and her privacy. She’s careful about whom she shows it to, and only when she feels ready. I said, “Vulnerable. Being creative is on a par with being vulnerable.” He seemed dubious. I hope he remembers that, though. I felt a kinship with his daughter, and with him for caring about her. When we landed in Chicago, I said good-bye and we shook hands. He was surprised that, “unlike most women,” I have a strong grip. I like to think I shook up his world a little bit. I’m far from outgoing, but when I have a chance to make an intimate connection with someone, even briefly, I relish it. That’s how people change, I think (me and them).

All week (not just in the airports) I had a good feeling about various men I encountered. It’s a new world for me. In Chicago, my gate happened to be near Wolfgang Puck’s, which I love, so I hobbled over there and got myself a margarita pizza. As I looked around for somewhere to sit, two Indian men got up and effusively offered me a seat at their table, and I settled in to eat my lunch. More than one man helped by parting the crowds for me or letting me get in line. One guy responded to my thanks with “Absolutely! No problem!” Women were kind to me too, of course. I couldn’t help noticing that the women who helped me were not with men. And the men were not with women. Not sure what to make of that.

I think that will be all for now. There’s an omelet downstairs with my name on it, or will be once I break a few eggs. I hear you have to do that.






merry’zine #54: March 2012

March 10, 2012

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


painting letters

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

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

who paints?

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

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

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


Daddy and me, 1949 (I was 3).

My cartoon of those early days.

painting my father (a Who Paints? excerpt)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Nam like me

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

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

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

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

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

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

to hell and back, computer-style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

news from social media

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

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

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

—Utah has named an official state firearm.

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

—Ahhh-HA. Ahhh-Ha. Ahhhhhhh-Ha.

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


—BART train falls off track. What?

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

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

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

—Oh! Bingo! Zingo! Dango!

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

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

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

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

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

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


                            …follow me, I’m tweeting!

Mary McKenney


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 #38 May/June 2009

June 8, 2009

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

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

jetsam, dreams, painting, death, the almighty $

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death… to be cont’d.

the stuff of memory

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

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

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

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

some jog, some blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

condo made of stone-a

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

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

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

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

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

epilog: Milk and more

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

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

R.I.P. Celeste West.

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

[Mary McKenney]

#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]

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