Posts Tagged ‘lies’

mary’zine #57: September 2012

September 9, 2012

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

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

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

the wisdom of Deadwood

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

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

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

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


after life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

the literal exegesis

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

the metaphorical exegesis

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

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

when bad things happen to good kitties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

some gratuitous images from the interwebs

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



Bonne chance to all people of leftish persuasion come November…

(Mary McKenney)

mary’zine #39: August 2009

August 10, 2009

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
—Emily Dickinson

In writing this ‘zine I try to be honest, I really do. But there are so many ways to lie—to myself and to you—to lie, to beg the question, to create half-truths out of whole cloth, to use faulty memory, false modesty,
red herring!—
logical fallacy, tautology, weak analogy—
exaggeration, equivocation, self-deprecation—
poetic license, devil’s advocation—
authorial omniscience, oratorical ebullience,
printer’s error, clerical error, little white lie—
self-sabotage, self-delusion,
sins of omission ( _____ ), misinformation, outright fabrication….

I’ve told you many stories about my family. I’ve defended them, attacked them, sworn my allegiance to them (sworn at them), tied their individual quirks to sociological tendencies, political inevitabilities, biology, geography, quantum reality. I can make you think whatever I want—create their images, break them, and mend them again. Tell what I saw, what they said, what was going through my head.

And what is going through my head right now is a song I can’t identify until I catch some of the lyrics….

Time, time, time, see what’s become of me…
Hang on to your hopes, my friend
That’s an easy thing to say, but if your hopes should pass away
Simply pretend
That you can build them again…
—“Hazy Shade of Winter” (Simon and Garfunkel)

Right now it’s a hazy shade of summer, but that’s all right. Time and seasons are jumbled together, Mary is quite contrary in all kinds of weather. Who are my family to me? Why all this ambiguity? I had it all figured out, there was no doubt. My siblings both, vestiges of my youth, now larger than life. Their male attachments, the living and the dead. Déjà my father all over again. There’s no escape, no exit true. What can I do?

I know some of you don’t like this—
my Half rant. Half slant.
My peripheral vision.
Bear with me.

4 stages, and counting

In thinking about my life in the 5 years since I moved back to my hometown, I remembered the five stages of grief as outlined by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross:  (1) denial, (2) anger, (3) bargaining, (4) depression, (5) acceptance. And it occurred to me that I have experienced at least four of the same stages in reuniting with my family, but in a different order: (1) acceptance, (2) denial, (3) depression, (4) anger, (5) ______?

Acceptance is probably the wrong word for stage 1, since I “accepted” what I found here from the point of view of an outsider, a working-class glorifier, an imperial superior who took her bubble-gotten gains and moved to an economy that was already bust. The joke in the Bay Area is that, sure, you can buy a big house in the Midwest for a song, but then you have to live there! Well, I did an end run around that, too, because I love living the quiet life.

Denial was the part where I tried not to notice that there were flies in the paradisal soup, more than just 1 snake in the Edenic garden. I had factored this in (I’m not stupid) because, like Donald Rumsfeld, I knew what I knew, and I knew there were things I didn’t know, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was perfectly willing to face these unknowns and sort of “pre-know” them in theory, the way I used to argue my therapist’s point before she made it, so she wouldn’t have a chance to throw in a zinger I couldn’t defend against. But I still wanted to believe that everything was fine. Just fine.

Depression was realizing that I couldn’t wave a magic wand or my superior education and make the frustrations disappear—the frustrations of not being heard, of not being engaged with, of (in Rodney Dangerfield’s phrase) “playing tennis against the curtains.” Not surprisingly, the frustration was centered around—ta da!—my beloved family members: Barb=sister; K=sister; MP=K’s husband. Thank God I have friends who are adept metaphorical tennis players, but “the heart wants what it wants.” (Oh dear, I’ve quoted Rodney Dangerfield and Woody Allen in the same paragraph. What is happening to me?)

Anger was my impotent reaction to the above. I could write a book called It Took Me 50 Years To Become a “Mean Girl.” I never experienced the “mean girl” phenomenon in high school, probably because I was so preoccupied with the “mean boy” phenomenon. (Funny how you never hear about that—how teenage boys treat the underdog girls.)  I had my two “beatnik” male friends and didn’t care about belonging to a girl clique. And my prettier, better-dressed, richer female classmates had other fish to fry and didn’t bother me. But now, out of the aforementioned frustration, I’ve become just plain mean. With my brother-in-law, a self-proclaimed “asshole,” I’m able to hold my own with humor. When he uses vulgarity to try to intimidate me (such as using sexist or racist language, or threatening to show me his dick), I fire right back and make him laugh more often than not. Before I moved back here, K had worried that there would be fireworks between us, like there were between him and Mom, but he’s mellowed since then and I’ve become more obnoxious. With my teacher sister, who has learned from 30 years in the classroom with bratty 8th graders that her role in life is to (a) boss people around and (b) dominate any conversation, I am quick to point out her mistakes and stop just short of poking her with a stick to see if she’ll fight back. K is a stealthier target, because she’s a lifelong peacemaker who just wants us all to get along. So she nods and smiles through the Talker’s long stories, but it’s all a sham, she’s probably thinking about the laundry or her shopping list, like some bored wife submitting to sex. And both sisters ostentatiously Change the Subject when the slightest disagreement (usually between me and MP) threatens to roil the placid surface.

Wow, this is a lot of vitriol for someone as nice as myself. Well, when I point one finger at my sisters, four fingers are pointing back at me… or is it three fingers and a thumb? But the thumb just sticks up in the air. Am I doing it right? Sometimes I think of myself as a bomb dropped in their midst, but I have no idea if my net influence is for good or ill. They were oddly unsurprised when I moved back here, and I suspect they’re oddly unaffected by my continuing presence. They’re pretty good at ignoring what doesn’t fit into their world. They never ask about the life I lived in California, even when I come back from a visit out there…. or about the life I live here, now, for that matter, beyond asking the open-ended “What’s new?” (“Well, just this morning I was thinking about Ralph Waldo Emerson. Let me explain….”). I am a square peg that has somehow become halfway wedged into the round hole of the family, and the part that doesn’t fit just doesn’t get their attention.

As I read this over, I realize I’m “lying” to you right now—giving you the wrong impression by emphasizing the discord. I’m actually pretty copacetic and receptive to whatever’s going down. The outbursts are fairly rare. I’ll tell you about one a bit farther on.

Stage 5: Bargaining? I don’t think this stage applies, since for me “God” doesn’t enter into it. But I just can’t believe that anger/frustration/intolerance is to be my final destination. I do feel that I have to change and truly accept my peops for who they are. The weird thing is that, when I don’t think about what I should be feeling or saying, or how I should be interacting, more times than not I just let go and realize I’m being with them. It’s that paradox between thinking it’s all about me—I’m the one who has to change—and thinking it can’t be all about me because they’re who they are. Between getting mad at them and getting mad at myself, it’s no wonder I’m raging half the time.

And do I have to explicitly say this? Despite all my pettiness, despite our wildly different experiences and perspectives on life, I would not hesitate to give either of my sisters a kidney, a piece of my liver, the shirt off my back, whatever they needed. That deep-down bond doesn’t change. But instead of focusing on the bond, I tend to put my attention on the surface annoyances, like when my sister says, about a garage sale purchase, “I jew’d ‘em down,” and I feel like I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t say something about it, because to her it’s just a word, and I’ll be condescending to her with my oh-so-refined greater knowledge of inter-ethnic propriety. In fact, we had that conversation years ago when I objected to her telling her young son that he couldn’t ride in the car up front with me, because “white folks sit in the front, black folks sit in the back.” I made the obvious argument, like Don’t let your children grow up to be racists, but that’s not what she heard. To her I was being intolerably picky and imposing a ridiculous standard on a saying that to her was completely innocuous. It’s times like that that I’m torn between my working class populism and my middle class politicization. It’s an awkward fence I straddle. Ouch!

and yet… laff riots

The three of us went to Green Bay recently for a much-delayed birthday celebration and shopping spree. Barb couldn’t go in her birthday month, May, because she was having gall bladder attacks, and K’s birthday was in July, so we combined them. Plus, we were all jonesin’ for Mexican food and wanted to hit the stores we don’t have up here: Target, Kohl’s, Michael’s, T.J. Maxx, Office Depot, Sam’s Club. We killed an extra bird with the same stone by driving Barb’s son Brian down to the airport so he could fly back to his child-free life in Texas after a 7-day whirlwind visit with his six kids, whom he misses “so much” (meow).

So we’re sitting in the restaurant, El Sarape. Brian has ordered some flour tortillas and “queso,” which I know is cheese, but what arrives is a bowl of liquid, like some disgusting thin, cheesy soup, into which he dips the tortillas. When I’m bored and waiting for food (and even when I’m not), I like to play with words, so I start riffing on the liquid queso, like is it Spanish for CheezWhiz, and I’m trying to say “Mexican” in the proper dialect, “Meh-he-cano,” and suddenly K pops out with “Mah-ha-rella” (mozzarella), and Barb and I start laughing, and then K is laughing, and then we’re in full-blown can’t-stop-laughing mode, and we can’t look at each other without cracking up all over again. Brian is sitting there observing this, completely not getting it, and it’s too bad, because it’s one of our favorite things. For some reason it’s just hilarious that we’re laughing out of control, blowing our noses and wiping our eyes, trying to avoid eye contact. There’s a moment of calm, and then suddenly I have my head in my hands and my shoulders are heaving with laughter, and then all decorum is lost once again. At those times there’s no judgment, no small-town/big-city split, no learned class difference, just a thing that happens sometimes, a kind of grace.

So you see… it’s the ambiguity, the ambivalence that confuses me. I always think things should be all one way or all the other. I still have a lot to learn.

the mitigated gall

Barb had her gall bladder removed recently, and her daughter arranged for the three of us (the two sisters and her) to take turns staying with her for a few days until she could manage on her own again. I spent one night and one afternoon with her. On the second night after the surgery, she was still in pain. She had a drain in her side and a bottle of bodily jus taped to her belly, which the caretaker du jour had to empty periodically. She had to sleep sitting up in a chair, and when she went to the bathroom she couldn’t get off the toilet by herself. I didn’t sleep all night, partly because I don’t sleep that much at night anyway, and partly because there seemed to be no place that (a) was comfortable and (b) had a decent light by which I could read a book. I kept thinking longingly of my big comfortable chair at home and of course my two cats. But as soon as I heard the slightest sound from the living room, I was on my feet and going in to find out if she needed anything. There was that ambivalence again, between my absolute willingness to help her and my dismaying discomfort. I watched the clock almost minute to minute, and the night crept slowly by. I felt trapped, like… oh, imagine that, like when I was a kid living in a tiny house with my sisters, mother, and invalid father. I’d almost forgotten the visceral discomfort of that paralysis, that lack of an exit. I sat on the bed for minutes at a time, unable to even lie back, immobilized by the feeling of no way through, no way forward, no way back. Just wait for time to pass. And this was just one night!

I gave Barb her pain pills when she needed them and made her a sandwich when she felt she could eat. I emptied her drain bottle, pulled her off the toilet, and helped her step into clean underpants. At one point she said she dreaded the first time she would have a bowel movement, because she could hardly wipe herself just from going #1. I didn’t say anything, but I thought a lot about it. It felt like karma coming home to roost. I escaped all caretaking of my mother when she was in her last months, and I heard about Barb being disturbed at having to wipe Mom’s ass. K told me she could have done it, because, after raising two kids and several pets, “shit” was her “middle name.” “Shit” is not my middle name. But I knew I would do it for Barb if it came to that. There’s some comfort, I must admit, in accepting the worst. But I never had to face it. A week or so later, her daughter told me that she had said to Barb, “Wait until Aunt Mary is with you before you go #2; let’s see how much your sister loves you.” My niece cracks me up, she’s like the Roseanne Barr of the Wisconsin farm set… and one of the saving graces of my life here.

And so, we endure. The time may come when one of my sisters will be forced to wipe my ass, or stay up all night outside her comfort zone, away from her beloved pets and favorite chairs. It’s a two-way street, a three-way bond, for better or worse.

your lying eyes

One night I walked into K and MP’s house for our usual Friday get-together, sniffed the air in the kitchen, and said, “I smell apple pie.” K replied, “No, you smell hot dogs, that’s what we had for lunch.” “No,” I insisted, “I smell apple pie.” Again she denied it. (If she had denied it one more time, we would have had a situation of Biblical proportions.) But I figured it was a new flavor of dish detergent or air freshener, and I forgot about it.

Later in the evening, K and MP were off in another room for a while, and when they came back in the living room, MP asked me, “Why did you think you smelled apple pie when you came in? We had hot dogs for lunch.” I said, “I don’t know, that’s what I smelled.” After a pause he says, “I bought an apple pie today. It’s in the fridge.” I was stunned. I asked K, “So why didn’t you just tell me that?” and she says, “Well I had to make sure it was OK with MP; he bought it with his own money.” I was really offended. “So what did you think I was going to do? Grab it and run off with it?” We went back and forth like this, and I kept asking, “WHAT DID YOU THINK I WAS GOING TO DO?”—and she finally said, “It wasn’t mine to give!” And I, reaching a fever pitch, exclaimed, “I DIDN’T ASK FOR IT! I DIDN’T WANT IT! I DON’T WANT IT NOW!” I couldn’t believe she felt she had to get her husband’s permission to acknowledge that there was a pie on the premises. And “he bought it with his own money”? What is he, 5 years old?!

The very fact that I was shocked by this incident tells you that it’s an extreme example: for once, no muddiness, no ambiguity. But I know my family is not alone in refusing to corroborate the most sensitive family member’s perceptions. “You didn’t see that, you didn’t hear that. (You didn’t smell that.) You’re crazy. What’s wrong with you?” And the one who knows what she sees, hears, or smells is left wondering: What’s really going on here? So if you’re that family member, you have to deal somehow with the lack of truth-telling, the peace without honor, the mis/perceptions, the trails of bread crumbs leading nowhere.

As my friend P points out, what’s even worse than outright lying is willful ignorance. My biggest frustration is the refusal to engage, the lack of interest in looking beneath the surface, in questioning the obvious. Is it just Midwesterners? In these parts, if you ask someone her opinion of something—a movie, a book, a restaurant—you’re likely to get the response, “It’s different.” It’s a binary system: There’s “the usual” (familiar, comfortable) and “the different” (i.e., not the usual). Cue the classic iceberg analogy, the glacial heritage, perhaps, that carved out the gritty bottoms for the Great Lakes: Everything must be taken at face value, even if there’s nothing of value there. Those hidden expanses below the surface are too threatening to confront. Lie, deny, obfuscate, keep it light.

I have a vivid memory of walking down Bay de Noc Road when I was 11 or 12, making a decision about how I was going to live my life. I had experienced the injustice, heard the lies, “knew” there was no honor, nowhere. So from that day forward I vowed that I would keep the truth close to my heart but would say and do whatever it took to survive. I actually believed that I could remain honest inwardly while compromising any value and any truth. I had come to believe it was the way of the world, and I wanted to survive in the world.

I don’t know what specific event might have caused me to sell my soul like that. It might have been the sexual abuse that I was afraid to tell my mother about. (I knew that I would be the one to get punished.) Or it could have been the “Queen for a Day” contest, when my mother wrote a letter to the local radio station in my name and won herself tons of prizes (see ‘zine #3 for the whole story). But from an early age I had believed that it was a dog-eat-dog world, unrelenting and unfair—that it was crazy to tell the truth, to make yourself vulnerable. Every dog for himself.

In a long phone conversation with my friend B, I was complaining to her about the apple pie incident. And I forget exactly how the epiphany came about, but I suddenly realized that I was exempting myself from my own lies to family members, with some fine rationalizations intact. If I’m really honest with myself, I know that I lie for convenience, to “not hurt feelings,” to avoid confrontation. It always feels so inconsequential, something I skim over quickly and then promptly forget, while dwelling on the real or suspected untruths of others. I was telling B about the ‘zine’s long hiatus, when I had wanted to dig a little deeper past the honeymoon feelings but had felt constrained by having to censor myself for my sisters’ benefit. And then I realized: My new freedom in writing has come from not letting my family read it anymore. And more to the point at hand, I haven’t told them I’m still writing it. So basically, I’m lying to them. The fact that they haven’t asked about it in no way mitigates the lie. I can skate by on a technicality, implying by my silence that—“zine? what zine?” And if they did ask, I could easily mislead them with irrelevancies: “It’s hard to write,” or “I’m lazy.” And it would be easy to justify: What they don’t know won’t hurt them. (Also, what they don’t know won’t get me in a heap of trouble.) Let’s face it, lying is a tried and true way to protect yourself and control a situation. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, preferable to the alternative, or just plain unimportant. But long past the age when I was trying to save myself from a spanking for stealing penny candy from Pietsche’s store, I continue to think I have to censor the truth, even as I demand it (be careful what you wish for) from others.

“more than kin and less than kind” (King Lear)

I suspect that the biggest prevarication of all is that I’ve set myself up to be the arbiter, the judge-jury-and-executioner of my family’s words and actions. I’m hoist on my own pedestal, looking down on them, using my own intellect and life experience as the gold standard. I withhold myself while blaming them for not digging for the glittery substance just beneath my surface. When I get on those jags where I sit sullenly judgmental in the corner, like Mom’s opinionated ghost, and despair of the level of conversation or the inane TV show that’s blaring away while MP snores in his recliner, or wish for the enlightened company of friends I rarely see, whom I left in order to move here, I think: Am I a fish that is back in the barrel, no longer out of water, or have I simply traded in the big pond where I was barely noticed for the much smaller one where my fool’s gold can shine all the brighter and I can exalt in my kinship while failing very badly to be kind.

Remember, you can always reach me at or leave a comment on my blog at

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?
—Emily Dickinson

[Mary McKenney]

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