Posts Tagged ‘memory’

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.






mary’zine #64: November 2013

November 8, 2013

baltimore love

Update: The highway is my byway once again. After many months of man-hours and dirt and noise and inconvenience, the road called M35 is now paved with good intentions. Fortunately, Hell, MI, is in the Lower Peninsula. My hat is off to the fellas who do this grueling work. It must have felt like Hell all summer. On the other hand, their brothers who work in our few remaining factories might envy them the sort-of fresh air, if not the annoyed drivers trying to get from A to B.

And though my wonderful contractor, Paul K, did not work the roads, he was busy all summer putting on roofs (rhymes with hoofs) and remodeling mobile and immobile homes and is finally freed up to do my bidding. Although I no longer have the ready cash that I used to throw around like confetti (as every once-poor person does who gets a windfall, thinking that it will last forever whether you spend it or not), I need to replace the shag carpet in Brutus and Luther’s room. There are so many stains from their throwing up (and worse) that I don’t even go in there barefoot anymore. So Paul is going to replace the carpet with vinyl, making me and my goddess-next-to-cleanliness niece, if not the cats themselves, happy and care-free. My task now is to pick out a color that will go with the blue, green, and lavender pastel walls that my sister K painted many years ago. The room has become a cat-chall (ha) for art supplies, boxes of old files, assorted tools—hammers, screwdrivers, a drill, a whatchamacallit (thing with a bubble in the middle to make sure something is—oh, level; good thing I wasn’t called upon to name it when it was first invented), two orange metal sawhorses that I bought just for color, a long table, half of which is topped with a comforter for a dedicated cat lookout spot, and a desk with shelves holding reams of xerox paper, on top of which sits a dollhouse exactly like the one I (and eventually my sisters) played with as a kid (which my sisters found at a garage sale), which is not outfitted with dollhouse-size furniture, oh no, it’s a house of pain, sand tray-style, with skulls and other oddities inside and toy men with bad intentions climbing the roof, and on the wall above it is a quilt hanging my mother made me that purports to be a representative pictorial of my life—an embroidered road along which a series of bonnet girls traverse the peaks and valleys from age 0 to about 30, and the weird thing is that most of what she considered valleys were actually peaks for me (like my publishing the Alternative Press Index in Northfield, MN, for no money) and vice versa. At the top she had embroidered “Pilgrim’s Progress” and at the bottom, “The Slough of Despond, the Delectable Mountains,” and got mad at me because I didn’t know the reference. On the opposite wall, above the orange sawhorses, is a larger quilt that my friend Diane L gave me that depicts a colorful series of snakes, not lifelike, alternating with geometric shapes, very cool. In a corner stands a dress form that has been dolled up with one of my shirts, a skull wearing a cap that says Scotch Lobster, and on and on.

Wanna come help me move all that stuff out of there?



If you’re terribly averse to metaphysical speculation, you might want to skip this part. But I hope you’ll give it a look-see, anyway.

I sent my friend P this quote from Robert Lanza, MD (author of Biocentrism; How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe):

Our consciousness animates reality much like a phonograph. Listening to it doesn’t alter the record, and depending on where the needle is placed, you hear a certain piece of music. This is what we call “now.” In reality, there is no before or after. All nows, past, present and future, always have existed and will always exist, even though we can only listen to the songs one by one.

P replied:

Interesting, so where does “free will” come in—deciding where to place the needle?

So I pontificated, based on my limited (or no) understanding:

No one decides where to place the needle. It’s all happening at the same time and it’s just “what is” at any given point. Like, when I’m dreaming, I’m “there,” and when I wake up I’m “here.” I didn’t travel between the two places or decide where to be, when. When I have a very vivid memory (like you and me passing each other at dusk before we met but when we knew who each other was), I’m there. And when it “actually” happened, we were both there. (One could see memory not as a later recapitulation of a real event but as the needle coming down on that spot again.) “Free will” is a myth that we tell ourselves so we’ll feel like we’re in charge. We can make the little choices, like whether or not to eat the doughnut, but forces much larger than us are joining together (but without intention) to manifest the really big stuff (who we are). Back to the record: We think we are the record, and that we start at the beginning and play until the end. But as in Lanza’s analogy, any number of things can happen that don’t follow the linear “track 1,” “track 2,” etc. You can skip tracks, play one over and over, or even put them into other songs by sampling. For that matter, the people who played the music on the record probably didn’t play it in exactly that order. And they may be “dead” now, but we still experience them as “alive.” Or they went on to make other records. Or several people are listening to the “same” record at the same or different times. It’s more 3[or 4 or 10]D, as opposed to our 2D conception of “born, live, die” on a linear time line.

I’m making this stuff up as I go, obviously, trying to springboard off Lanza’s comments. But that’s fun for me.

along the same lines…


love is a higher organizing principle than time, but its organization is hidden

I was lying in bed one night, playing solitaire on my Kindle, and a feeling of near-euphoria began to creep over me. There was no apparent reason for this, as I had not been taking any recreational drugs (unless you count chocolate chip muffins, and I do) and it hadn’t been a “wonderful” day or anything. After a while, I started to think about time. (Solitaire is not necessarily a waste of time, it’s a good way to keep the surface mind occupied while the depths are allowed to roam: free-range thinking, thinking without words.)

Time seems to be one of the few constants in our universe. It’s so obviously a linear, one-way phenomenon. So I’m thinking this while I idly tap on the cards, and then, again idly, inwardly, I see, as a little graph in the middle distance, first, the straight line of time, and then, off to the side, seemingly scattered and unclassifiable… love. I gasp out loud. I’m not sure what I have yet, but I know it’s something. Time to put the thinking without words into something more tangible.

Time isn’t really linear, it just feels that way. We “time-travel” all the time. (I can’t avoid using the word “time” in these two ways: the sacred and the mundane.) Time travel is remembering, misremembering, trying to pin down “the now”: Is it ever really “now,” or is it “now” all the time? We speak easily about “tomorrow,” but it never feels like tomorrow, does it? When “tomorrow” comes, it’s still now. So what if, like those turtles, it’s “now” all the way down? a through line rather than a clothesline?

It seems obvious that we grow, both physically and mentally, even as we decay and atrophy. It’s all very pat, this time thing. In 1945 I did not exist. But was I “dead”? When I become nonexistent “again,” what will be the difference (to me)—between nonexistence “after” life and nonexistence “before” life… between 1945 and 2033 or whenever I shuffle off. There’s really no “before” and no “after.” It’s all illusion.

Unlike time, love seems completely malleable, unreal or changeable, unorganized, given away and taken away, hardly eternal, rarely unconditional, no direction (home) let alone one-way-linear. No straight lines in love.

An old friend e-mailed me recently. We used to write each other daily—long, funny letters with paragraphs and everything. But in the past several years we’d hardly had any contact. Time kept on “slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.” When I apologized for being so out of touch, she replied simply, “Love has no boundaries.” Cliché? Not when it’s true. This happens a lot with my painting friends. If I saw Ann again after, what, 30 years?, one of us would surely harken back to our fabulous night of dancing at Esalen. That was an eternal moment in our relationship—a moment beyond either of us. It existed—exists—without us. At the painting intensives, this happens all the time. Time does not factor into our relationships, because we have seen and held each other out of time. If I see a Facebook post from Madeleine, the love is fully there “again,” below the surface but never lost. And so on.

Love seems erratic. If you look back on your life, you can easily make a timeline, establish events all along the line, draw conclusions (on the wall). Time is what happens to you on the outside. The love you have experienced is not in the past tense, it exists outside time, where the structure is invisible, the organization chart non- hierarchical. It is alive, apart from your memory of it, apart from your loss of the other person, physically or mentally. It’s like the letters that pile up on each other when your typewriter key gets stuck. (I mean, got stuck; typewriters are definitely of time, and now fully out of it, except for some geezer authors who can’t let them go.) Love is all in a moment, an eternal moment. Sometimes you feel (like a nut), sometimes you don’t. But feeling is not everything. Love has a paradoxical solidity, an effervescent presence, that time will never have. It’s the organizing principle of our lives. Time is horizontal. Love is vertical. When the timeline of our physical self is cut off, time also stops. But love is perpendicular to time. It is not affected by time. No love is ever lost. No time is ever gained.

the requisite cat tales


 Pookie lives! Luther and Brutus are still babies! (see gray heap in the center of the comforter)

Diane and I were talking about my cats “lolling”—meaning “lounging around”—but “lolling” looks like they were laughing out loud! But no—they laff on the inside, all the goddamn time.

One morning I was opening the blinds, and I stood looking out the window with my hand on the cat tree. Suddenly, I felt a furry object slam against the side of my face, the tree rocked, and Brutus jumped for the ottoman. I was struck by a wide-body cat! I think he was a little freaked out, like what the heck just happened?? We just looked at each other for a long beat. Then it was over. (He always jumps from the floor to the top of the thing, and it always rocks a little. I’ve been waiting for it to tip over when he does that. I never suspected I would be involved.)

Some of the worst times in my life have been when a cat of mine died or, worse, when I had to decide to put him or her down, to spare it from pain. Radar, who had feline leukemia, died in the night. I waited to take Tweeter to the vet until her tumor broke through the skin. I like to think that Pookie and I agreed on the time for him to be released from his painful lack of kidney function. Toward the end, he weighed next to nothing. We were both sitting on my bed one day, and we just looked at each other. I’m not saying the look we exchanged was conscious on both our parts, or that we had a mind meld or anything. But we had come a long way, Pookie and I. Almost 20 years. When I would return after 10 or 12 days at a painting intensive, his cry of welcome was one of sheer bliss. One of those times, when I arrived home after midnight, I sat for over an hour just petting and combing him, talking to him. He would look back at me over his shoulder and just beam, radiating pleasure and love. Yes, I call it love.

You can’t take time away from a cat. A cat is not trying to hold on to life, like we humans do. We think of life as a quantity—more is more. A cat is always now. It’s for ourselves that we try to keep them with us, sometimes long past the time they need to go.


from the sacred to the deeply philosophical


My friend Liz, who posted this cartoon on Facebook, commented,
“This is so deeply philosophical, had to post.”  I agree.

my “diz-zies”

My world was turned upside down for 9 days—part literally and part metaphorically. On day 1 I got out of bed feeling dizzy. It’s not a pleasant feeling, but I figured it would pass in minutes. It didn’t. It wasn’t vertigo—when the room seems to be spinning around—I had had that for a few hours about a month before. Never knew for sure what caused it, but possibly I inadvertently took a double dose of Zoloft that morning. This “diz-zies” was all on the inside, and it was positional. If I stood or sat without moving my head, I felt fine. Ah, the perfect state I’ve been longing for my whole life: no physical movement except for my eyes and hands. (I half expect I will end up like the Twilight Zone character who was the only one left on earth with nothing but time and no distractions to take him away from his precious books… but then his glasses broke. Not sure how that will play out for me, but I’m of the half-glass-empty persuasion.) I obviously couldn’t drive. So my sister Barb had to chauffeur me around, which I know she was more than happy to do (well, maybe not more than happy). I was grateful for her help but also uncomfortable with it, because, like all old people, I fear losing my independence.

The soonest I could see the doctor was on day 3. Barb drove me there, waited around for more than an hour, and then drove me to the pharmacy, the grocery store, and then lunch at Schloegel’s. The doctor gave it her best shot, but no diagnosis seemed to fit the symptom. She did some hands-on neurological tests, such as having me lie on my back with my head hanging off the table then held my head at a 45-degree angle as I sat up. We went through all the requisite questioning about what could have caused the diz-zies, but there were no answers. She checked various possibilities on the computer, but nothing seemed to fit. She said it was quite possible that it was “viral.” I thought, Does that mean I’m going to be famous on the Internet?? Thankfully, I didn’t share that pearl of humor with her. I keep learning that not everyone finds me funny, or indeed comprehensible. Many times when chatting with, say, a young woman who’s checking out my groceries (“Is this garlic?” she asks; oh honey, you have a lot to learn), I’ll try to make a wee funny and I usually get a blank stare in return. Like maybe she says, “I have a long drive home, so when I get off work at night, I have to eat or drink something on the way.” I comment that I don’t restrict myself to eating and drinking at night, I do it all day long. Stare. Blank. Maybe they don’t hear me, since I tend to mumble. Also, I’m sure I look really old to these young whippersnappers (and let’s face it….). Who would expect a specimen such as myself to try to relate through humor?

So… with a prescription for meclizine, a motion sickness pill that did absolutely nothing, and a date for a follow-up with the doc in 2 weeks, I spent the next 4 days trying to keep motion to a minimum. I was a motion minimalist. It was awkward when I had to clean out the cats’ litter boxes, and when Luther flopped on his back and rolled over in front of me, I couldn’t lean down to pet him, which made me feel strangely guilty. He would recover and then lounge there trying to look blasé about being rejected. I don’t treat my cats like they’re human, oh no. I mean, just because I will sit in an uncomfortable position with my left arm aching or having to go to the bathroom but unwilling to disturb their sleep….

I stayed home until day 7—lost at least 2 pounds because I had no access to potato chips—and then Barb offered to stop at the store for me and then get us both some lunch and bring it back to my house. I made a list—broccoli, eggs, milk, and a few other necessities, using all my self-control to not ask for chips or a muffin but hoping she would intuit that I would need some snack therapy. She didn’t… but she chose the broccoli crowns very well, which I’m really picky about. Then she drove back over the bridge to Menekaunee for fish fries and showed up chez moi with my very own meals on wheels. She stayed for a while as we ate and talked, but soon I felt like I was fading fast and I went back upstairs to nap in my chair. I kept thinking I could just sleep it off.

The previous night I had made the mistake of lying down for a few hours instead of slouching in my chair. When I woke up, I was so dizzy that I couldn’t take the garbage out to the road for fear that I would fall down outside. This wasn’t good news. I imagined this becoming a permanent condition.

On day 9 (Sunday) Barb came back to take me to her house to watch our shows: Homeland, Orphan Black, and a couple of new sit-coms. I had recovered from the intense diz-zies and was feeling hopeful that my long national nightmare was coming to an end. I was feeling more normal (or as close as I ever get) and enjoyed the chicken salad sandwich, chips, and Coke I had while watching TV. It’s the chips, I swear! I refuse to believe they are bad for you! I’m only half-joking!

Sure enough, I felt fully recovered by the next day, so I e-mailed my doctor’s office to cancel my follow-up appointment. I wish there had been a way to e-mail my job when I was feeling poorly or just needed a “me” day; it would have eliminated a lot of theatrical morning hoarseness during those awkward phone calls to say I wasn’t coming in. But that’s neither here nor there. It’s in the past. I have not lost my independence—in fact, I have gained a great deal of it, in that I can do my work in my own time. I now have the perfect work life, except for not getting paid very often. Hey, nothing’s perfect!


what nightmares are made of

Every day you read the news or surf or stumble through the Internet, and there’s always some new atrocity, some stupid [Republican] opinion, some scary prospect, some fearful new law. I get tired of having to up my disbelief level to meet each new horrible challenge. Outrageous! Unbelievable! I become the girl who cries Wolf, but there’s always another Wolf around the corner. I’m going to print something here, in its entirety, from, November 5, 2013. You may have seen it, but I think it’s worth another look. It’s a scary indicator of what America has come to, or is going toward, full speed ahead.

This news report out of New Mexico is so disturbing, it’s hard to imagine this could happen in America. Talk about an unreasonable search.

            The incident began January 2, 2013 after David Eckert finished shopping at the Wal-Mart in Deming.  According to a federal lawsuit, Eckert didn’t make a complete stop at a stop sign coming out of the parking lot and was immediately stopped by law enforcement.      

            Eckert’s attorney, Shannon Kennedy, said in an interview with KOB that after law enforcement asked him to step out of the vehicle, he appeared to be clenching his buttocks.  Law enforcement thought that was probable cause to suspect that Eckert was hiding narcotics in his anal cavity.  While officers detained Eckert, they secured a search warrant from a judge that allowed for an anal cavity search.  

            Initially the doctor on duty refused the search, citing it as “unethical.” Unfortunately, after several hours, hospital personnel relented and did the search.

            Here’s what happened to David Eckert at that hospital:

            While there, Eckert was subjected to repeated and humiliating forced medical procedures.  A review of Eckert’s medical records, which he released to KOB, and details in the lawsuit show the following happened:

            1. Eckert’s abdominal area was x-rayed; no narcotics were found.

            2. Doctors then performed an exam of Eckert’s anus with their fingers; no narcotics were found.

            3. Doctors performed a second exam of Eckert’s anus with their fingers; no narcotics were found.  

            4. Doctors penetrated Eckert’s anus to insert an enema.  Eckert was forced to defecate in front of doctors and police officers.  Eckert watched as doctors searched his stool.  No narcotics were found.

            5. Doctors penetrated Eckert’s anus to insert an enema a second time.  Eckert was forced to defecate in front of doctors and police officers.  Eckert watched as doctors searched his stool.  No narcotics were found.

            6. Doctors penetrated Eckert’s anus to insert an enema a third time.  Eckert was forced to defecate in front of doctors and police officers.  Eckert watched as doctors searched his stool.  No narcotics were found.

            7. Doctors then x-rayed Eckert again; no narcotics were found.  

            8. Doctors prepared Eckert for surgery, sedated him, and then performed a colonoscopy where a scope with a camera was inserted into Eckert’s anus, rectum, colon, and large intestines. No narcotics were found.  

            Throughout this ordeal, Eckert protested and never gave doctors at the Gila Regional Medical Center consent to perform any of these medical procedures.

            Think that’s outrageous? David Eckert has since been billed by the hospital for all the procedures and they are threatening to take him to collections.


The Tent

Outside, the freezing desert night.
This other night inside grows warm, kindling.
Let the landscape be covered with thorny crust.
We have a soft garden in here.
The continents blasted,
cities and little towns, everything
become a scorched, blackened ball.

The news we hear is full of grief for that future,
but the real news inside here
is there’s no news at all.



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 #52: November 2011

November 10, 2011

Looking down into Lake Superior from a high bank above the water. Photo by P. DuPont.

P made her annual trek to Menominee for my birthday, and we spent a day in Munising, on the southern shore of Lake Superior. It was beautiful, and I was delighted to prove to her that the U.P. does have mountains (as I call them) or at least rolling hills. Below are two views she took of ”Miner’s Castle,” a sandstone formation on Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.


Hills or mountains aside, there are some great natural sights in Menominee, too.





Before P got here, I had to renew my driver’s license, in person, at a Secretary of State (SOS)’s office. I wanted to get an “enhanced” driver’s license so I can walk amongst the Canadians on their own soil if need be. There’s an SOS office about a mile from my house, so I figured it would be easy enough to bop in there with all the required documents in plenty of time to get the new license before my birthday. The office shares a little building with Stephenson Bakery—one of many odd juxtapositions around here.

I set out at 3:00 in the afternoon on a Wednesday, but I arrive right in the middle of their Wednesday lunch hour. (All other days, it’s 12:30-1:30.) I take care of some other business downtown despite the beckoning bakery, which is leering at me through its windows as if to dare me to come in for just an itty-bitty snack. (“You’re already here,” it seems to be crooning, “and you have to wait anyway”), but I am resolute. I go home empty-handed and empty-mouthed.

I come back at 4:30, there’s no one in line ahead of me, and a pleasant young woman wearing purple eyeshadow greets me. I’ve put all my documents in a plastic envelope, so I start dumping everything out on the counter and then discover, O damn!, that I took my wallet out when I was doing the other errands and didn’t put it back. I gather everything up again and head back to the house. I run upstairs (I use the word “run” very loosely), and my wallet isn’t where I usually keep it. Damn again! Then I have a terrible feeling. I run back downstairs and check the plastic envelope, and there it is, hiding below the fold as it were! What an idiot. I drive back down to the SOS and start presenting my documents again. I haul out the “Notification of Birth Registration” that I’ve been carrying around for just shy of 65 years. Purple Eyeshadow brings it to a faceless bureaucrat in a back office who, after making a phone call, sends her back to me with the news that they can’t accept it, because it’s not a true birth certificate, it’s only a “souvenir.” Who would want to keep a useless piece of paper that doesn’t even prove your baby exists? My parents, that’s who. It’s an original, highly creased and yellowed document with my whole name, place and date of birth, my parents’ names, and a “State File Number.” On the back in big capital letters it says, “IMPORTANT—READ CAREFULLY.” It states that my birth certificate is permanently filed in the Bureau of Records and Statistics, Michigan Department of Health, Lansing 4. The following clinches it, in my opinion: “This notification should be carefully preserved. It is a valuable document” [my emphasis].

But no, it’s not good enough for the SOS. Eyeshadow tells me I can go down to “the courthouse” and get something-something that’s more official. (I don’t even know where the fucking “courthouse” is, there’s an old one that’s been there since the Cleveland administration, and then there’s a new set of municipal buildings about a mile away.) I yearn to tell Eyeshadow to “bite me”—yeah, I know she’s just doing her job, but I’m too pissed to care—but I just sigh dramatically and roll my eyes and hand her my old driver’s license and my brand spanking new Medicare card. She says I can’t use the Medicare card as proof of my Social Security number, even though the number on my Medicare card is my Social Security number with an apparently distracting, corrupting   “-A” at the end of it. She starts telling me what I need to give them to prove what my SSN really is, but I curtly turn and barge out of the office. I almost head into the oh-so-conveniently located bakery (is that why they’re still in business, to cater to the pissed-off citizenry who can’t produce acceptable documents?)—but I’m beyond even crullers at that point. And that’s saying something.

I get home, look for the metal file box of my Mom’s that I can’t remember the contents of, and—lo and behold—discover that I have a “real” certified birth certificate in a nice folder that I got back in 1986 when I needed one for some reason. Who knows if a 1986 certification will stand up to the high standards set by the SOS, but it’s the best I’ve got.

Now I know how Barack Obama feels—well, except for the wars and the Republicans and stuff.

I have received dozens of communications from the Social Security Administration over the years—all those statements that verify that in my first year of full-time employment I made a grand total of $4,104. So I pull out the file and start going through it. And guess what? The SSA is loath to put the recipient’s full SSN on their documents, because they want to “help prevent identity theft”! Great! Looks like they will also “help prevent the SOS from giving me a driver’s license.”

I finally come across two documents mailed to me by the local SSA office in Marinette. One is a computer printout, not on any letterhead, that states “MY NAME IS…” and “MY DATE OF BIRTH IS…” and “MY SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER IS….” This “IMPORTANT INFORMATION” about my “CLAIM FOR SOCIAL SECURITY RETIREMENT INSURANCE BENEFITS” is signed by a “Mrs. Seefeldt,” but I’m not at all sure that this document will hold up under the intense scrutiny of Purple Eyeshadow and her shadowy boss.

The other document is a “Voluntary Withholding Request,” a “Form W-4V” (the SOS instructions say that a W4 form is acceptable for proving SSN). This form has been filled in by computer, but couldn’t I have gotten hold of a blank form and filled in the LYING, CHEATING FALSE INFORMATION myself? There, in black and white, it says: “2. Your social security number,” and indeed my actual social security number is typed in there as bold as anything, without the offending “-A” from my Medicare card. But the form is red-stamped “COPY.” Will a mere copy be acceptable to Eyeshadow, Shadowy Boss and the SOS her- or himself? We shall see.

After perseverating on it for a few days, I realize I have to get this taken care of sooner rather than later. But I dread going back there. I envision a string of irrational demands that I can’t fulfill. I mean, how do people with falsified documents do it? I was born in this very town, and I have “proof” galore that I am who I say I am. But finally I go back, and it couldn’t have been easier. Eyeshadow waits on me again, and when she sees me I think she gets a little tense, doesn’t look me in the eye as she says, “What can I do for you?” Yeah, I’m that much of a badass, I had sighed at her and didn’t say thank you. First thing, I say, “I’m sorry about the other day,” and she says that’s OK. Then it’s like we’re best friends, we’ve been through so much together and I get to show her the calm, sane, reasonable person I am down deep, and I can see she appreciates it. When I tell P this later, she wonders how this faceless, eyeshadowed bureaucrat would even remember me. Honey—this is not the San Francisco DMV, it’s down and personal, or UP and personal. Like once when I approached the deli counter at Angeli’s, and one of the clerks asked me, “Do you want egg salad today?” and I’m a little taken aback. Why does he remember me? It’s hard to know how personally to take these commercial interactions. I’m usually “nice”; I strive to have a persona that makes the clerk think, when she sees me coming, “OK, this one doesn’t cause any trouble,” but I think I prefer being anonymous. My new documents meet the high standards of the SOS and Eyeshadow and her now visible boss, who looks to be about 23 years old. I feel ancient, but not quite as ancient as the really old woman at the other window, who is surrendering her license. When asked if she’s an organ donor, she quips that no one would want any part of her body anyway. I have to say, I can relate to that. Oh, she meant after she dies. I had not been looking forward to the eye test, but it’s a very quick matter of reciting the perfectly legible letters displayed in a little machine. Likewise, the photo-taking is innocuous, you stand right there a few steps away from the counter, and Eyeshadow tells you to smile if you want to, which I appreciate. The picture comes up on the screen and she asks if I’m happy with it or do I want to try again, and I say that it’s not going to get any better than that… she chuckles… she’s probably never heard that one before… yeah, right… and indeed it’s probably the best driver’s license photo I’ve ever taken. For the next couple of days, as I do errands around town, I feel almost attractive. We finish our business, she tells me to have a nice day, I say “You too,” gather my stuff together, and surprise her by saying “Bye!” She founders a bit—does no one else have the decency to utter a friendly farewell?—again says “Have a nice day,” and voilà, I have rehabilitated myself in her eyes, and in my own.



patient does not wish to share…

Had my annual visit with the handsome Dr. T. The front office person always asks me if I want to authorize anyone to call them to get information about me, and I get confused and always say no. They have my power of health attorney, or whatever it’s called, on file, but they never seem to want to trust what they already have, it all has to be new. So I had to sign a paper that said, “PATIENT DOES NOT WISH TO SHARE ANYTHING WITH ANYBODY.” I think that’s a bit harsh.

Dr. T. is his usual charming self. He congratulates me on my 25-lb. weight loss and says he’d smile bigger but he’s afraid he has a piece of carrot in his teeth. My laff of the day.

Then he kind of takes the wind out of my sails about my 0% calcium-in-my-arteries test result from earlier this year, because there can still be “soft” plaque and I still have high cholesterol. So I have to double down on my cholesterol medicine.


I’ve written a lot about my personal experiences and outlook on this site, but now I feel like revisiting some of the influences on my reading, writing, and editing life. Maybe “influences” is the wrong word, implying that external forces shape who we become. Ever since I read that Picasso was kicked out of school at the age of 10 because “all he wanted to do was paint,” 1 I’ve found it fascinating to look back at the “acorns” that have turned me into the tall, strong oak tree I am today. Ha! Anyway, the point is, I’m not an existentialist (“existence precedes essence”)—first, because it’s a bleak world view that seems peculiarly male (all abstract, Man Turned Hero in the Face of an Uncaring Universe sort of thing), and second, because I do think we are born with an “essence” that manifests throughout our life. When looking back from the vantage point of great age, or even medium-great age, I think it’s possible to see that, in a way, things were meant to happen the way they did. “Meant to happen” is a loaded phrase; I don’t mean that an old man in the sky decided what sort of life to give each of us and marked all the plays on the blackboard with X’s and O’s like John Madden and then BOOM that’s who we are. I see it more as if an internal engine or fire (a fire engine?) pushes us to blaze or blunder down a path that we appear to create as we go, but that is truly driven. We see it after the fact, when it manifests. Until then, we can only perceive the fog of the so-called Future as we stand on the edge of the ever-Present cliff, every nanosecond new and impossible to predict but also in some strange way making total sense.

I once asked my painting teacher if the painting—the paper with the paint on it—“mattered.” Her answer: “It does and it doesn’t.” Which sounds like a non-answer, but I knew what she meant. In one sense, the process you go through while painting is what matters the most, but what shows up on the paper is the mirror to which you respond, stroke by stroke. And later, looking back at your paintings can help you track your journey—at least in theory. My paintings, many of which I have framed and hanging on my walls, still seem as mysterious to me as when I painted them. They radiate feeling and intensity but don’t necessarily give up their secrets. Which is fine with me.

Likewise, one’s individual life matters and yet it doesn’t. In the grand scheme of things, we are but dust in the wind, and other song lyrics from the ‘70s. From what we can tell from this side of the life/death divide (if there is a divide, or only a full stop, a colon, or even an em dash—who knows what punctuation will ultimately define us?), we may matter to a few or multitudes of other people, we can accomplish magnificent things for which our name will live on forever (J. Christ, S. Jobs), or we can be known to only a few, but deeply known and loved. We will live on in their hearts until they too pass on, and then at some point, if we don’t make the history books, there will be nothing left of us. But as we are living it, Life is everything, no matter how small its manifestation appears to be.

I don’t remember my mother reading to me, but I know I must have had Little Golden Books, because the way my stomach drops when I see the illustrations on the paperboard covers with the gold spine, it’s a sense memory from way back, from little Mary Lou still intact within me, like a nested doll.

When I was very young, my aunt Dagmar gave me a book called Dear Heart. The only thing I remember about it is the sentence, “You can’t be too careful.” I puzzled over what this meant. It was the first time I remember thinking about language and wanting to know how it worked. Later, I spent the summer after 7th grade pondering the use of the subjunctive: if I were, not if I was…. It was definitely a WTF moment, if only that expression had existed at the time.

Over the years I visited Spies Library every week, taking out the maximum number of books, and I was finally let up in the adult section around the age of 12. I already had my heart set on going to college, so I found all the books I could that had college as a theme. It seemed like the most glamorous life.

The first witticism I remember making was when I was 10 and hanging out with my cousin Donny. He gave me a cherry Lifesaver, and while I was still savoring it, I announced that I had to go home (next door). I half-seriously told him, “I hate to eat and run,” and he laughed. It was the first time I felt the power of humor, and the inkling that I might be good at it.

(When P was visiting, I often had to point out that I was joking. She said she used to be able to tell, but now I don’t have an “affect.” I said, “I’ve never had an affect,” but it’s possible that I’m taking “deadpan” to an extreme: merely dead.)

Some of the most significant reading I did was in the World Book Encyclopedia, which my parents bought me when I was in the 5th grade. I would read the difficult entries and practically will myself to understand them. It’s exactly the same way I now approach the editing of scientific manuscripts, especially when I’m not familiar with the subject: take one word at a time and just figure the damn thing out.

In 6th grade I heard about something called Pocket Books, which was a publishing company that sold books for fairly cheap. I had never heard the term “paperback,” so I went into a dime store and asked if they had any “pocket books.” So they ushered me over to the ladies’ purses. I was so disappointed. It must have been that Christmas that my mother somehow got her hands on a publisher’s catalog and ordered me a large box of paperbacks, in all styles, reading levels, and subject matter, from Elephant Toast to Robinson Crusoe to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to The Call of the Wild to Journey to the Centre of the Earth (possibly my favorite book of all time) to Julius Caesar. It’s the single best gift I received in childhood, from a parent who could barely afford to put food on the table. I guess that goes a long way to making up for her ghostwriting my autobiography the year before, come to think of it.

At that point, the library couldn’t hold me. I wanted my own books. In 7th grade I had to start going to the high school, about 2 miles from home. I usually took the city bus, which cost 12 cents each way. But when I discovered that Everard Drugs sold paperback books on a revolving rack, I would walk to school and back and save the bus money until I could afford the 25- and 35-cent books. I got some pretty racy books, because I hadn’t yet learned how to judge a book by its cover. (Or maybe I had.) I remember reading about a boy who showed a girl his “wiener,” and I haven’t felt the same way about hot dogs ever since.

I joined the Detective Book Club, subscribed to the Saturday Review of Literature, and devoured all the reading assigned in my English classes, except for Charles Dickens, whom I hated at first read. BLEAK House, good choice of adjective, Charles. Once, I brought one of the Erle Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason) books to school—The Case of the Calendar Girl—and this cute boy who would never have talked to me otherwise asked to look at it. Of course I was thrilled, but he was obviously just looking to see if there were any dirty parts in it. There weren’t.

Just as often as I would happen upon a classic like Seventeen by Booth Tarkington, I was drawn to books based on TV shows. My 9th grade English teacher, Mr. Eidt, who had also been my mother’s teacher (so you know how many decades he had on him), shamed me when he did a locker check and found a Leave it to Beaver book in mine. I turned the shame inward but didn’t understand exactly what was wrong with it. It was like being pre-sexual (though I was already post-)—you’re just going along, doing what feels good, and suddenly the Adult World starts judging.

I joined the Adult World when my friend Jerry turned me on to The Catcher in the Rye. I still have my original paperback copy, which might be valuable by now, but I went through and underlined all the funny parts; one doesn’t have a sense of “This will be worth cash money someday” when one is 15. It’s a cliché now, but I cannot overstate the significance of that book to my world view. I was done with Beaver and Wally; started reading “real” books and listening to Bob Dylan records. I had no idea that I was falling into step with my generation. I wasn’t aware of having a generation. But when I got to Michigan State a few years later, there was a whole culture, counter to the established one, that felt tailor-made for me.

In high school I joined the debate club, a really odd choice because I hated public speaking. I had a serious crush on the debate coach, Mr. Malechuk, so maybe that’s what motivated me. There is no more dreaded memory in my life than the mornings I had to get up before dawn and prepare to spend a winter day being driven to Houghton or some other way-northern town to (a) throw up and (b) debate. We won most of our debates, but I truly hated doing it. My specialty was taking the negative side, which may have been inevitable given the “Mary Mary quite contrary” mantra that I still hear to this day. Inexplicably—again—I took the $100 I had inherited from my grandfather and rode a Greyhound bus downstate to MSU one summer for a week-long debate clinic. Did I tell you this already? Well, long story short, my assigned debate partner broke his leg on the first or second day and got to sit out the rest of the week, while I had to take both affirmative and negative sides in every debate and got no credit for it whatsoever. I don’t remember much else about the experience, except that (a) a girl named Lois Lust was teased mercilessly about her name, and (b) the predominant flora on campus, especially around the student union, exuded the smell of loneliness. I’m not trying to be poetic, it was the oddest thing, like having synesthesia. That smell followed me through the 5 years I later spent there, and I can recall it perfectly to this day. Oh, and (c) the bus ride home was hell on wheels, because a dirty-old-man/evangelist sat next to me and tried to molest me in the name of Jesus… because I had to “open my heart,” you see, and he had to “help” by touching my oh-so-conveniently located heart-area. I didn’t dare speak up, tell the driver, or anything. It was just one more in a series of impositions that I had to endure, and that I never questioned.

I wrote a column in the Maroon News, the high school paper. It was a Herb Caen-esque gossip column that featured little news tidbits and jokes about my classmates. Just about the only words Nancy Hartz said to me in high school were about my question of who had dropped a penny during nap time in kindergarten and made the whole class stay after because she wouldn’t confess. It was her. I think she enjoyed being singled out like that. It was my first foray into ‘zine land, another territory that didn’t yet exist, except in the “inarticulate speech of [my] heart” in the words of Van Morrison.

Except for the kindergarten mystery involving Nancy, my jokes were often at the expense of others. I also drew comic books, many of which also made fun of friends and classmates. It was very satisfying to make other kids laugh that way (I was too shy to talk), and I never considered the effect on the kids I made fun of. I hope I have grown out of that unconscious cruelty by now. Humor can be a way to keep people at arms’ length. I’m not sure that’s the right way to describe it… something about keeping myself safe and separate, unimpeachable—protecting and distinguishing (simultaneously hiding and showing) myself.

In my senior year, I placed fourth in an essay contest with the theme, “What Freedom Means to Me” (my angle: I don’t know, because I take freedom for granted). The top 5 winners had to recite our essays into a microphone and be re-ranked according to the effectiveness of our oral presentation. This moved me from fourth to second place, surprisingly. Then we all got together with Mr. Eidt to polish our essays. The first place winner, Vicky Lundgren, who was beautiful and “rich” (middle class), had written a good essay, but her last sentence was clunky. I don’t remember what the problem was, but I suggested a slight rewording and impressed the heck out of Mr. Eidt… until Vicky persuaded me to tell him we didn’t want to read our essays to the whole school in assembly, and he never spoke to me again. That’s when I learned about the fickleness of “mentors” who drop you if you ever dare to question them. (I’ve experienced this many times through the years.)

As a freshman in college I was placed in an advanced English class with 10 or 11 students, one of whom was a 10-year-old boy genius (now a grown-up computer guy, gasp). I loved the professor, Perry Gianakos, who gave me an A+ on a paper I wrote about Death of a Salesman that apparently changed his mind about whether American literary characters could be tragic heroes according to Aristotle’s definition. I also joined the campus newspaper and wrote headlines that I then cut out of the published paper and mailed back to my favorite teacher, Ruth, eager to show her how well I was doing. I wasn’t really interested in journalism, though. I took many creative writing classes but never got the hang of making stuff up. In lieu of writing fiction, I wrote long, detailed, spirited letters that another of my mentors deemed belles lettres. Another precursor (unbeknownst to me at the time) of my eventual writing style.

Going to library school was a desperate measure designed solely to keep me in academia for another year after college. I went to the University of Michigan but disliked Ann Arbor and hated the so-called graduate-level classes. I was a radical brat and a terrible snob. One of the professors wrote on my evaluation that I “did not present a professional image and should be interviewed in person.” What, knee-torn blue jeans and surly looks weren’t considered professional?? It was 1969! Years later I met him at an ALA convention where I was accepting an award for a friend, and he said, “Oh, so you’re Mary McKenney.” My name had become quite familiar to librarians because of my reviews and articles in the library press. I still looked pretty much like I had in library school, but that was the beauty of the counterculture. We could have it all: do what we wanted, dress like we wanted. That has been my credo ever since.

I had to have a work-study job to pay my way through library school, and the UM library didn’t have any openings, so I was lucky enough to (“meant to”?) land an editing job in the Bureau of Business Research. I turned out to be good at it, and my non-librarian fate was (nearly) sealed. After classes and work, I wrote short reviews for Ted S., a professor who compiled several editions of his book From Radical Left to Extreme Right. I was thoroughly enthralled by underground newspapers and comix and loved writing about them. He paid me $5 apiece for the reviews, and when I asked for a raise he lectured me on how it was supposed to be a labor of love (sure, but he got royalties). The same thing happened when I wrote for Bill K., a library publishing professional who edited many reference books, including Magazines for Libraries. He didn’t pay me much more for longer reviews, and he dropped me when I asked for a small raise. I learned that I rarely get what I want by asking for it. A dubious-sounding lesson, but it seems to be true in my case.

After library school I couldn’t face the thought of working in a library, so I accepted a near-volunteer position at Carleton College (Northfield, MN) on a previously student-run publication, Alternative Press Index. In some ways it was a dream job: I spent most of my time in my tiny office reading underground papers and corresponding with volunteer indexers. I had an attic room in a house owned by the college, and I was thrilled to be living my dream of working in the counterculture. It paid $15 a week, plus government surplus food  (canned bulgur: you haven’t lived…). The dominant credo of the time was to have no distinction between work and life… which is where I am right now, come to think of it. (I don’t know why I’m throwing the word “credo” around.)

Thanks to a radical publication called Vocations for Social Change, I got an actual library job at St. Mary’s College in Maryland, where I hobnobbed with the student and faculty radicals and became infamous for being one of the first “out” lesbians on campus and then for being fired and starting a student revolution (actually, I was a just figurehead wrapped in an enigma). I’ve written about this, too, so I won’t repeat it. I wasn’t really cut out to be a librarian. The mantra of my fellow librarians, even the radical ones, was “information.” I never cared that much for information as a goal. Weird that I ended up editing science, which is sort of the ultimate in information.

P was an older student at the college, and looking back it seems like a fateful moment when we passed each other on a country road, at dusk, no one else around. We knew of each other’s existence—we were the campus feminist matchmaker’s dream, an “angry Navy wife” and a “virgin dyke”—but didn’t speak. I can hardly believe that that was 40 years ago. After she graduated, we moved to the Bay Area and lived with her grandmother and great aunt for several months. We found jobs, moved to the City, and climbed the respective ladders in our professions.

I could go on and on (and already have), but that’s enough for now. For some visual relief, I present two photographs, taken by P (of course), of her cat Maddie.


A few postscripts:

  • In one day’s mail recently, the only two things I received were a check for my editing work for $105 and a water bill for $105.11. I told P, who commented, “You’re losing ground.”
  • The other night, I dreamed about my h.s. teacher Ruth (whom I recently found out has died). Unlike all previous dreams of her, this one was completely gratifying. She gave me a beautiful pin with my name on it, and I wept and hugged her 3 times. It felt upon awakening that I was giving myself back to myself, in a way. She gave me a great gift back then. My mistake was in confusing the giver with the gift.
  • 1 Remember there was a footnote way back there? J. Hillman and M. Ventura, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—And the World’s Getting Worse.
  • Below: View outside P’s new house. OK, so Oregon has some pretty sights, too.


Mary McKenney

mary’zine #46: September 2010

September 17, 2010

my body, my selves

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

back to my body

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #11 pt2 February 2001

January 25, 2010

I was a teenage beatnik wannabe

“You had friends in high school??” —my therapist J, sounding just a bit too incredulous

At the end of a 5-day painting intensive, a woman who was fairly new to the group said she had been nervous about coming. “I thought it would be like high school,” she said. “A clique running the ‘school’ and me on the outside like always.” I knew what she meant—you’re never too old to feel like a dorky freshman in a new group—but I wanted to say, “Honey, if this were like high school, I wouldn’t be hanging out with the popular kids—don’t worry about it.”

Back in ’61-’64, my friends Jerry and Gordy and I were on the cutting edge (in our own little small-town way) of the coming countercultural heyday that came to be known as “the sixties.” But the cutting edge is not always the place to be, when you see yourself as potentially infinitely cool for listening to Bob Dylan records, reading J.D. Salinger and the Saturday Review of Literature, and longing to have your own “pad” in New York City—while the rest of your little world sees you as three dorky musketeers, twerps in sheep’s clothing. The literary magazine we started as seniors—we called it Review IV because it was our fourth year of high school—hardly made a ripple on the local scene, but the aspiring poets who read our bulletin board notice at City Lights Bookstore in the magical city of San Francisco sent us their earnest young compositions, never the wiser about who we actually were. I still have the original submissions in a box somewhere, but unfortunately I haven’t unearthed any hidden gems from now-famous poets. Most of the poems we got from that ad were along the lines of “Here are a few of my favorite things/puppy dogs and sunshine…” (the women) or else raw cries of existential angst (the men).

I shouldn’t talk—I was writing truly terrible poetry at the time. One poem started, “All life comes in a-sordid colors.” I was so proud of that pun, I couldn’t really get past it. Unbeknownst to me, I actually made a start in the right direction when I wrote a long, free verse poem for senior English about going for a walk and finding a dead bird. Of course it was hokey, but it was at least from my heart and in my own voice. But pre-1965, the literary world was the ultimate boys’ club, and the boys were still caught up in the postwar heroic despair of looking for meaning in a meaningless universe. And believe me, dead birds were not the way to go. Jerry made such fun of the poem that I stopped writing poetry then and there. Not that he ever wrote anything, but he was a born connoisseur of literary excellence, just ask him.

Long before the days when student rebellion was as de rigueur as sock hops and football games, Gordy and I staged little defiant acts that centered, in those more innocent times, on dress codes. Being the girl, I played the supporting role. Boys were required to wear belts to school, and we all had to stand for the pledge of allegiance every morning. So Gordy rebelled against two birds with one stone. As the rest of us heaved ourselves out of our chairs for the obligatory nationalistic display, he ostentatiously removed his belt and handed it off to me. Then he slouched smugly in his seat while I stood there with my right hand over my heart and my left hand clutching this symbol of (Gordy’s) chains of oppression, feeling like a doofus in my mother-enforced frizzy hairdo, pink-rimmed glasses, and unredeemably dorky Montgomery Wards rust-colored skirt and blouse. As a teenager, the distance between how I felt and how I was allowed to present myself was infinitely large. I was primed for “the sixties” like you wouldn’t believe.


Jerry turned out to be gay. He’d had season tickets to the civic symphony since he was 12, which definitely made him “queer” in the general sense, but no one around there knew what “gay” was, least of all me. So all through high school I waged a pointless battle for his romantic attention. He was every bit the ugly duckling I was—painfully thin, unruly hair, glasses; his father worked in a print shop, and they didn’t even own a car—but Jerry was way, way above such considerations. He was my mentor in all things cool because he was so sure of himself, for no reason any of us could figure out. He was a terrible student but saw himself destined for great things. He moved to Indonesia right after college; he was a misfit here, but he lives like a king surrounded by nubile houseboys over there.

I spent so much time with Jerry—hatching our literary aspirations (I was going to be the William Faulkner of the U.P.), listening to classical records he got from the library to educate me—that my mother said to me bitterly when she came to pick me up one day, “Why don’t you just marry the guy?” I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now. I knew she was jealous of my crush on my English teacher, Ruth, but I know of no reason why she wouldn’t want me to be friends with this perfectly harmless boy.

Gordy, on the other hand, had a motorcycle and would take me riding while my mother fretted at home. This at least made more sense than her disdain for Jerry, but for someone who supposedly wanted me to have a social life—she’d counsel me before school dances (to which I went alone, of course), “Just walk up to a boy and say, “Hi! I’m Mary McKenney!”—she had a funny way of showing it.

Gordy was not gay but was so shy that it took me a good 15 years to realize that he had been waging a small battle for my romantic attention all through junior high and high school. Once again, my life takes on the aura of an O. Henry story. By the tenth grade, I bore the scars of years of being the ugly girl—boys making fun of me, snickering to one another when they had to dance with me during a “ladies’ choice,” Vernon Lemke holding me at arm’s length, one hand in my armpit to stave off any closer contact. So when Gordy became part of Jerry’s and my bohemian clique, I still saw him as the squirrelly kid who had pulled my hair and grabbed my purse in junior high. He had beautiful straight black hair, cut like the Beatles’, but he was short and swarthy (I realize now that he looked a little like Prince, but that look was way ahead of its time) and terribly insecure. We were both Jerry’s intellectual protégés, so in going after Jerry, I was, in effect, choosing the “alpha male,” such as he was.

I was so far from being able to imagine any boy being interested in me that I completely ignored the clues—that Gordy and I would lie on my bed in the dark, at his insistence (where was my intrusive mother?), listening to Bob Dylan or Peter, Paul and Mary records; that he gave me a wagon wheel he had burnt half-black with a torch and attached a rusty chain to (he was the artistic one of the trio—his bedroom had a fishnet draped from the ceiling, black walls, and lots of Chianti bottles with candles dripping multicolored wax all over them); that he once pulled his jacket over his head and threw a ring at me, in an apparent bid to make me his “girl.” I laughed it off, not having even the faintest idea that he could be serious. In my rare moments of feeling empathy for teenage boys in their quest for female acceptance, I think of Gordy. And even now, I wonder if I could be imagining the whole thing.

After high school, Gordy disappeared somewhere and later surfaced in Maui, where he lives to this day, as far as I know. Jerry and I both went to Michigan State; we saw each other on campus occasionally, but he had bigger fish to fry. He collected a series of beautiful, emotionally unstable gay men he took home to Menominee for visits, his mother glad he had so many “friends.” I learned about lesbianism from the first joke I heard in college. One roommate says to the other, “I want to be frank with you.” The other says, “No, I want to be Frank.” (I had to have this explained to me.) In my sophomore year, there were two lesbians in my creative writing class. I would see them walking on campus while surreptitiously holding hands behind their backs. I was totally creeped out and said contemptuously to Jerry that I had seen some queers. He was so deeply closeted that he didn’t say a word.


… she might well have wondered what there could be but a future of pain for a woman who cannot be a part of conventional society. Poor Elvira! Think of the anguish, being on the fringes of real life, not having a family, not producing roly-poly grandchildren, going from spiky-haired woman to spiky-haired woman, marching in so many parades, spending vast sums of money on therapy, keeping a houseful of cats. —Jane Hamilton, Disobedience

Then I fell in love with my roommate. BR (her name was Barb, but I don’t want you to confuse her with my sister) was a beautiful, voluptuous girl from Detroit who was acting out like crazy, in retaliation (I surmised) against her psychologist mother. She would sleep with men on the first date and then come back to the dorm and get in bed with me and weep on my chest. Unfortunately, we were total closet cases. We joked about “being Frank” all the time; we held hands, I sat on her lap, and she gave me excruciatingly so-near-and-yet-so-far backrubs, but neither of us had the nerve to go any further. When I realized what I was feeling, I looked up “lesbianism” in the library and was not put off in the least by all the declarations of “perversion.” (Remember, in 1965 no other interpretation was available, at least in mainstream sources. We have indeed come a long way.) I was already in counterculture mode and was relieved to find out why I had always felt “different.” Now I know that there’s a whole slew of reasons for my feeling of differentness, but at the time it was a liberating discovery.

My desire for BR was stronger than anything I had ever felt. My pursuit of Jerry and my crush on my English teacher were nothing in comparison. I can still see her creamy white breasts gleaming in the moonlight as she swept into my room, robe flying apart, but I could no more have touched her or spoken about my feelings than I could have flown to the moon—which we also didn’t know was possible in those days. All I could do was watch her and suffer in silence, letting Peter & Gordon’s song—“Woman, do you love me?”—express the unsayable.

BR and I planned to drop out of college after our sophomore year and move to New York City, where her autoworker stepfather could get us secretarial jobs in the union office. But in the meantime she acquired a boyfriend, Jim, whom she tried to get me to sleep with (Freudian much?), and went to the college counseling office for help in making her choice. The counselor told her to choose the man, and she did. She married and quickly divorced him, then married another guy. In one of her later letters to me, she revealingly said, “He’s fun, but he’s not you.” I’ll always wonder what would have happened if I had declared my interest. But something tells me I would have been just as unsuccessful with her as Gordy was with me. If you’re not ready for something, you can’t see it even when it’s standing right in front of you, its jacket over its head, tossing you a ring.

As it turned out, I dropped out of college anyway, but I didn’t run off to New York, I just hung around East Lansing with my remaining roommates, getting stoned out of my mind and celebrating—ironically—the Summer of Love.


If you come to a fork in the road, take it. —Yogi Berra

When I was in the tenth grade, a few of us nerdy types started a literature & philosophy club called PhiLi. We met in the popular kids’ hangout, a funky little restaurant at the intersection of Highways 41 and 35 that everyone called “The Pit.” We did not meet at the same times that the popular kids did. (Once, I was invited to The Pit by the popular kids after a rehearsal of the school play—I was a makeup girl, believe it or not—and I remember just sitting there frozen, speechless, having not the faintest idea of what to say to people who had it in them to be homecoming kings and queens.) In PhiLi, we read William James and debated some of the eternal questions, such as: If you’re walking around a tree on which a squirrel is scrambling around the trunk, are you also walking around the squirrel?… and … (of somewhat more immediate interest): Are we governed by fate, or do we have free will? i.e., did we each make a free decision to come to The Pit tonight, and what if we had come halfway and then turned around and gone home, would that mean it was fate that we didn’t come, or that we had exercised our free will?

The club didn’t last very long.

But the question about fate vs. free will is, of course, always with us, and I still wonder if the forks in the road we come upon really represent choices or if there’s some inner compass that causes us to forge ahead on our One True Path regardless of other so-called possibilities. Is my present life merely a consequence of not becoming lovers with BR, of not going to New York? Is it only because these things didn’t happen that I became a librarian, that I met Peggy in my first (and last) library job, that I moved to the Bay Area and started an editing career, that I was led to a fulfilling, creative life through painting….? To this day, I’ve never even been to New York. Is there a Mary in a parallel universe who lives in the Village, who became an editor in a publishing company instead of a university, who rides the subway instead of the ferry? Or was I destined to come to the Left Coast, to ply my trade and write my little ‘zine (far, far from the literary pretensions of Review IV)? It’s not as if these questions keep me awake at night, but when I’m between work assignments and have spent the afternoon napping and reading the latest John Grisham novel, and the sun is setting pinkishly through the window above my computer, and I have pan-fried filet of sole to look forward to for dinner (pan-fried for me by the chefs at Woodlands Market)… what the hell?


Lately, I’m continually bombarded with images from random moments of my past, as if I’m flipping through a photo album of my life, or spinning a wheel of fortune that lands briefly on this or that person or scene. I’m beginning to see why old people spend so much time thinking about the past. You spend your 20s and 30s building your life, having relationships and making a career—thinking you’ve escaped whatever gruesome childhood and adolescence you endured—and then when you turn 50 or so, there it is, staring you in the face again, demanding to be acknowledged, like a slo-mo version of your life flashing in front of your eyes. It seems as if the past doesn’t get more and more distant, as logic would dictate. It curves, maybe, like space, coming back around again, feeling like yesterday. Maybe when you die, your life is revealed to have been lived all in one “day,” all as accessible to you as what you had for breakfast this morning.

I was sitting at my desk the other day, editing a book about all the horrible things that bacteria can do to cheese, milk, meat, vegetables, grains, i.e., every food item we hold dear—there’s even a “cocoa and chocolate” chapter—and I had a visceral kind of insight, an undeniable sense that we think in terms of horizontal, i.e., time “going by,” linear, us floating in it—when actually our experience is vertical—nothing moves, we are like pillars standing in time, and what “happens” to us is all happening at the same “time,” like when the laser printer messes up and all the letters of your sentence pile on top of one another. We think our lives are like sentences, paragraphs, like we’re volumes in a great library of never-ending rows of shelves. But actually it’s as if there’s a plumb line going from God, down through our center into the earth and beyond. Everything’s happening on this line. All our experience is equally present (if a bit compacted), there’s no such thing as “movement.” Which is why, I suppose, we’re exhorted by the Buddhists to “live in the moment,” because there’s nowhere else to be.

I know this is abstract, but when I had this insight, I was thinking about our December painting intensive and of some of the wonderful moments I had with people there, and I realized that those moments are still alive—even the moments we had last year, or 3 years ago—they are not “lost in time,” any more than loving someone who lives 3,000 miles away is diluted because of the space between you. The profound experiences I’ve had are all here now; all the people I’ve ever loved (or not) are here, patiently waiting their turn in the line at the memory bank, ready to make a deposit or a withdrawal, nobody’s going nowhere.

It’s like nothing is ever lost. And maybe the body itself is the memory bank—the bricks&mortar/flesh&bone institution that organizes the experience. So maybe it’s not about choosing roads more or less traveled by but about simply being. I don’t think I missed out on my “real life” by not recognizing Gordy’s interest, or by BR not recognizing (or acting on) mine. I did finally meet someone, we recognized each other’s interest, and the laughs and tears ensued. Maybe it always looks “meant to be” when you look back on your life, but I can’t help thinking it’s a true perception. You start out as an acorn, end up as an oak tree; where does “choice” come in?

I don’t know if anyone else is interested in these crackpot theories, these half-baked intuitive fantasies of what the world is really like. I suppose I could take a poll of my readers and see what percentage wants to read about: (1) cats, (2) travel, (3) food, (4) “physics,” or (5) sex (eek!), but don’t fence me in, you know? Sometimes I feel like a kitten chasing a ball of yarn, I just like to see it all unravel.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine #40: September 2009

September 24, 2009

By a former member of “the vast Upper Peninsula diaspora” (N.Y. Times)

This is mary’zine #40, which means it’s sort of my 40th anniversary…. which I shall use as an awkward segue to another 40th anniversary that’s been in the news….

if you don’t remember the ‘60s…

I wasn’t at Woodstock, thank God. Instead, in the summer of ‘69 my friends Ralph and Kathy and I traveled in a station wagon from East Lansing, MI, to the Atlantic City Pop Festival and the Newport Folk Festival. Woodstock was 2 weeks after A.C., but Woodstock wasn’t yet Woodstock, if you know what I mean, and we figured we could see more acts at the twofer. I was incredibly miserable through the whole trip. First, I don’t travel well, as you may know. Also, we spent a day at the ocean as soon as we got there, no suntan lotion, nothing. My only concern at the time was the seaweed in my bathing suit. But by evening I was burnt to a crisp and became sick and feverish. If I had known then what I know now, I would have gone to the emergency room. I remember lying across several folding chairs in the back of the Newport concert while someone (I thought I remembered that it was Joan Baez, but apparently she wasn’t even there) sang her folksy heart out. The music was beautiful, the night was pleasantly cool, the stars sparkled in the vast night sky, but it was not transcendent, it was hell. You know how they say youth is wasted on the young? Well, it was wasted on me all right. The ‘60s were a great time to be young, but my youth was consumed by anxiety and depression, mostly in anticipation of the great void that was my unimaginable future. And Zoloft was not yet a twinkle in the eye of its Creator.

So all I remember of the festival itself is one afternoon small-group session with Pete Seeger and that nauseating night listening to _______. And oh, by the way, I don’t remember the dope helping my nausea at all.

We had no money, so we slept in the station wagon and then had to sneak into gas station bathrooms to clean up. We got chased away from a couple of them. We were as bedraggled as you can imagine, but I was still outraged at being stereotyped as a dirty hippie—I was a respectable college student! I had studied the philosophy of art! By the way, we didn’t call ourselves hippies, we were freaks, as in the Furry Freak Brothers. I seem to be the only one from my generation who remembers that. Also, “politically correct” was coined by the left about the right, and no one except squares ever used the word pot. I can’t bring myself to say it to this day—but I know better than to say “grass.” “Dope” and “weed” seem to be perennially acceptable. One is always trying to be “with it” without usurping the cultural hegemony of one’s youngers. Unfortunately, we oldies are going to be around for a while, boring them to death with our stories of youthful abandon and our all-around selfishness.

We also found a church that would give us free doughnuts, but we had to sit and listen to a Jesus-talk at the same time. It did not feel like a fair trade. Plus, I was still burnt and sick.

Tell me where are the flashbacks they all warned us would come.

—Jimmy Buffett

I’d feel bad about the lack of detail in this account, but you know that if you remember the ‘60s you weren’t there. I do have a few snapshot-memories, but those are notoriously unreliable. You can be thoroughly convinced that you remember something a certain way, but it’s been shown that the brain doesn’t go back to the raw data, it makes a copy and then every time you check the memory, it’s of that copy—and the copy itself can disappear or become corrupted. So the brain is less conscientious than a carpenter (“measure twice, cut once”). Even worse is that the original “memory” itself is unreliable, because our feelings color our perceptions. So the half-life of an accurate recording and copying of an event is vanishingly small. Thus we are nothing but layers upon layers of innocent deceit. The “self” is built from these dangling threads of amorphous, poorly focused conjecture.

A mundane example of what I’m talking about is a scene from “Mad Men” (best show on television). Betty and her young daughter Sally are out on the front porch when a policeman comes by to tell Betty that her father died. Both Betty and Sally are stunned. The policeman needs to know what should be done with the body, so Betty goes in the house to get her father’s papers. Everyone who discusses this show online seems to remember this scene as Betty going in the house and closing the door in Sally’s face. But when you watch it again, you see that Betty goes in the house, leaving the door open, and the policeman follows her in and shuts the door. Sally is left outside, but the door is hardly “closed in her face.” But the emotional truth of the show is that Betty is cold to her daughter and thinks only of herself; thus we believe that her neglect is manifested by physically shutting Sally out. Now, if our memories are that unreliable one day after watching a TV show that we pay close attention to and discuss with others in great detail, imagine how skewed the memories of our own lives must be.

To the extent that there are any verifiable facts in the following paragraph, I owe it all to the internets.

At Atlantic City, along with 100,000 other people, we saw Janis Joplin, The Chambers Brothers, Iron Butterfly, and a host of other famous acts, but those are the only ones I remember… Janis because she was Janis, and the other two because they had the longest, worst songs of the bunch: “Time Has Come Today” (“TIME……….. TIME……… TIME…………”) and “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” The place was incredibly muddy… probably not as bad as Woodstock, but still. One of my recurring miseries was having to use the filthy In-A-Porta-Da-Potties, which I wouldn’t have minded so much, but there was a long line outside each of them, and I had a shy bladder that made it impossible for me to go when anyone (let alone hundreds of anyone’s) was waiting for me. I also had a nausea phobia and became very nervous when I was packed in with all those people and couldn’t see a way out. Let’s face it, I was not cut out for the hippie/freak life. I happen to have the letter I wrote to my mother after the trip, so I eagerly reread it to get the, you know, lush, you-were-there, first-hand impressions. But alas, because I had written it to my mother, there was absolutely nothing of interest in it.

One pill makes you larger/And one pill makes you small/And the ones that mother gives you/Don’t do anything at all.

—Jefferson Airplane

My father had died that spring. What I remember about that was getting the phone call from my mother and then that evening sitting on my boyfriend’s—you heard me, boyfriend’s—lap listening to “Piece of My Heart” after taking some random pills someone had given us. We really didn’t care what they were—what difference did it make whether you got larger or smaller? The pills turned out to be downers—perfect for ambivalent grieving?

I’m surprised anyone lived through that time. Perhaps our saving grace was that it was all quite new; we were such innocents. I mean, on “Gentle Thursdays” we would run out in the street and hand daffodils to strangers, all proud of our peacenik ways. Yeah, it was dumb, but all kids do dumb things, that’s how they find out who they are.

So what does all this have to do with the 40th issue of the mary’zine? Nothing, why do you ask? It’s not as if I started writing it in 1969. What I was writing in 1969 was tortured fiction that drew on some tortured experiences I had had, but I didn’t know at the time that you could just write like you were writing a letter. I thought it had to be all formal and correct. Yet, at the same time, I was writing long letters to friends and was often told that my letters were fun to read. Ah… too soon old, too late schmart, as Mom used to say. Or maybe not too old in my case, because, well, here I am.

thought experiment

Now, I’m no scientist—more of a metaphysical autodidact—but I’ve been observing some interesting phenomena and putting 2 + 2 together. Not exactly sure what 2 + 2 adds up to yet, but hear me out.

First, all you folks d’un certain âge—born barely post-WWII—will recognize the continuing deterioration of one’s short-term memory. This used to be a joke. “I walk into a room and completely forget why I’m there!” This experience has become so common as to be unremarkable. But lately the short term is getting shorter and shorter. The speed at which my thoughts flash by and careen off the edge of the screen is truly awesome. I’ll think something, and then a millisecond later there is nothing, and I mean nothing. I have to really concentrate, trace my mental steps, or just stand in one place long enough to get that thought back.

I suspect that, at some point, that little gap—which may be empty of thought, but at least I’m there to notice it—will disappear, and I won’t even know that I had the thought, thus I won’t know that I can’t remember it. And that’s when it will get either scary or, I don’t know, extremely interesting. Maybe not so interesting when you walk into the kitchen, don’t remember why you’re there, don’t notice that you don’t remember why you’re there, turn the stove on… and walk away, letting the house burn down. But that comes later. Right now, you’re still in the phase where you walk into the kitchen, don’t remember why you’re there, retrace your thought-steps, think “oh yeah,” and turn the stove on. Everything proceeds normally from there, and you eat your supper instead of burning the house down—unless, of course, while you’re waiting for the spaghetti water to boil you walk into another room and forget why you’re there…. But my point is that, not only will the short-term memory go, but there won’t be any silent gap in which to regain your stride, get back on your track, and so on.

OK, hold that thought (if you can). My second observation is that my mind has a mind of its own when I’m tired. I’ll be sitting in my comfy chair reading a book or doing a crossword puzzle, and suddenly these sentences will pop into my mind, unrelated to the text of the book or the clues in the puzzle. The sentences are not my thoughts, nor are they talking to me. It’s more that my “signal” is being temporarily suppressed and other “channels” are opening up. It’s impossible to remember these little gems for long, so one night I wrote a few of them down after I “came to.”

“You were there for the gold feather.”

“I just don’t count on dogs being 4 or 5 months old.”

“They were horrible floors.”

“I’m not convinced these farmers are going to do any good.”

These sentences just came unbidden, as if someone (not I) were reading a book in my mind.

After the disembodied sentences come images—dream precursors, if you will—unless, of course, I’ve jerked awake just as the book is about to hit me in the face, in which case I try again to focus, but before I know it I’m in la-la land again. The images that come are not static, it’s as if I’m watching a movie in my head. I have no idea what movie it is, and there’s no narrator to explain the action, it’s just—BAM—a man is walking into a room and sitting down, and a woman starts talking to him (or whatever). It’s actually more like I’m seeing it in real life, only “I’m” not there—except as the photographic substrate, blank screen, radio dial, channel selector, or what have you.

When I put these phenomena together, what I get is the gradual scrambling of the signal that portends the dissolution of the self. So the question is not whether the self will continue after death, but whether that flimsily constructed bundle of imperfect memories will last as long as the body does. “Aging” is the gradual deterioration of our conscious control (or illusion of conscious control) of our experience, our selfness, the thing we think is so solid and will forever continue to be. And so the loss of short-term memory leaves only the long-ago childhood or young adulthood memories in the bank, and so you withdraw… and withdraw… and withdraw…. No more deposits—they don’t stick around long enough—and there’s no loan officer for memory. At first you appear to others to be merely a boring old woman incessantly recounting her past. Then the signal gets scrambled even more and you’re mistaking your daughter for your mother or losing whole chunks of your life and all you have left are conglomerations of thought-like sentences such as “Those farmers aren’t going to be there for the gold feather” and eventually “thofa caret her gofea.” And they call you crazy and stick you in a home.

My strategy to avoid all this—as doomed as it probably is—is to keep a little corner of my brain swept clean—pristine and aware—so that I’ll always be able to hover just beyond the disintegrating moment and—like Archimedes with his lever having found a place to stand and starting to move the world—look you (or the nurse’s aide) in the eye and say, “Hey… I came into the kitchen to make supper…. Is this a flashback? Don’t bogart that joint. Mommmmmy!”


(I hope someone leaves a copy of the Urban Dictionary in the ruins, so that future language mavens will know what to make of these increasingly ubiquitous acronyms; or maybe we’ll go back to using pictograms—or just grunting and pointing.)

My sister K recently accused me (gently, jovially) of “always going one step too far.” Obviously, she has no respect for the creative process. More and more, I want to push the envelope, say the unbidden, approach the forbidden. So much happens beneath the surface that we are supposed to leave unsaid. But along with my failing memory, I more and more lose control of what comes out (more about that later!). I do this most often when I’m joking around with my brother-in-law MP. When we’re there on Friday nights he always says to K, “You’re not watching ‘Monk’!” He really hates that show. But then he disappears into the other room when it’s time for it to come on, and K commandeers the remote and we watch it. So last week he pulls the same thing: “You’re not watching ‘Monk’!” So I point out the obvious, which is that he doesn’t really mean it, and then… I take it a step too far…. I call him a pussy (one of his favorite words for other people, and not the worst one). His response is immediate. He turns and glares at me, I gasp and cover my mouth and laugh, half to show I’m joking, half kind of scared that he’s really mad. Just before I said “pussy,” two roads had diverged in a yellow wood and I couldn’t stop myself from taking the one less traveled by. So then MP did the only thing he could to retaliate, which was to turn off the TV. I said I didn’t care, he said he didn’t either. K and Barb were not asked for their vote. Paradoxically, the sudden, relatively rare silence gave us sisters a chance to have a bit of conversation, which usually has to be conducted during the muted commercials or at a volume that must compete with the sound of TV gunfire and explosions.

That urge to veer toward calamity seems to be getting stronger. I think it’s always been there, but in the old days I was more likely to cry than to laugh my ass off. Is that a step forward? I increasingly don’t care. I’d say I don’t give a shit, but… OK, here’s as good a place as any to expose my deteriorating sense of decorum. There’s no way to tell the following true story tastefully, so I’ll just dive right in.

I leave K & MP’s one Friday night and stop off at Angeli’s to get a few groceries. I have no idea what lies in store for me, but I’m grateful later that it didn’t lie in store. Driving out of the parking lot, I feel the first tummy rumblings that tell me I’d better get home fast. I have made the tragic mistake of ordering Applebee’s version of chicken quesadillas—complete with processed cheese and mayonnaise—earlier in the evening. My house is only about a 10-minute drive from the store, but as always happens when I’m in a hurry, I get stuck behind every cautious old woman who’s not used to driving at night and every old farmer who thinks he’s out in the field on his combine.

The reports from my intestines are getting more and more ominous. I sense an imminent shit storm heading my way, and I don’t need a weatherman to know which way the shit blows. I clench, I curse, I pray. Well, I don’t pray, I’m not stupid. I try to hold on, mentally urging the sluggish old people in front of me to damn well shit or get off the pot! Bad choice of metaphor, but that is my world right now.

I make it home, open the garage door, ease the Jeep inside, attempt to gather my wits (and innards) about me, and take clenched baby steps into the house. The downstairs bathroom is just a few feet from the door, so I’m in luck. Or so I wishfully think. I step inside, and the floodgates burst, whoosh! The explosion is both impressive and expressive. I try to get my pants down, though clothes are no longer a barrier to nature’s call. I fumble with the toilet seat. Oh, look, the cats have arrived to see what’s up. What’s up is now out and about, all over the floor. They begin to investigate—probably wondering why I don’t use a convenient box of sand like they do. I have visions of their little cat feet traipsing shit all over the house. I struggle to stand up, and I waddle—pants around knees—to the door and shoo them out. I shut the door. I turn around. I cannot believe what I see. It is not just a shit storm, it is a shit massacre. There is shit everywhere. All over the floor. All over the toilet. Behind the toilet. Splatters halfway up the wall and in the sink. All over me and my clothes, which I guess goes without saying. Plop plop but no fizz, and no relief it is, except for the fact that this happened in my own bathroom, not in the middle of the supermarket. I could have been one of those crazy old broads who just lose it. It would be like the dirty hippie experience, only a thousand times worse, because at least dirty hippies are young. Being old is the vilest thing, and shitting yourself in public is the ultimate in indecent exposure. It’s a toss-up whether it would be worse than throwing up—in school, or at a dirty, muddy rock concert—but something tells me shit trumps vomit, or at least sees it and raises it one. (I think I just invented a new card game.)

So I’m standing there in this shitting field, this self-made massacre. I realize belatedly that in my haste I have left the outer door open, so I know Brutus and Luther are now taking a tour of all the dirtiest, dustiest, oiliest, spider-webbiest corners of the garage. Better than the shittiest, though. I am overwhelmed and almost succumb to hysterical laughter. But this is no joke. I gingerly step out of my pants and underwear and proceed, bare-assed, to use toilet paper and rags to clean up the mess. Nothing like this has ever happened to me, and no child or animal in my presence has ever comported itself with such wild abandon.

It takes forever, but finally, still bare-assed, I go out in the garage to find the cats, and they reluctantly come in with odd bits of lint and spider web sticking to their heads. I go upstairs and get in the shower. Ah, I am making progress. I do a shitload, literally, of laundry. Then I sit down at the computer and compose a short but graphic e-mail to my peops.

The next morning I get MP’s response. He and K had laughed so hard at my predicament that they nearly shit and pissed their own selves. Ah! The reward of truly reaching someone with my writing! I have opened up a Pandora’s box of new material, a brave new world of self-exposure not heard of since the prison diaries of Jean Genet or the confessional poetry of Anne Sexton.

Have I found my muse at last? Shit happens. Oh, does it ever.

And now, enough about me (as if).

truth takes another drubbing

As I may have told you, my sister Barb is not allowed to teach evolution to her 7th and 8th graders. She once used the word “evolved” in passing (as in “Humans have evolved to become much taller”), and one of the parents complained to the principal. So one day, for an assignment, she passed out cards that pictured famous scientists. The kids were to research the scientist on their card and make a report to the class. Too late, she remembered she had forgotten to take the Charles Darwin card out of the pack. Horrors! She didn’t know what to do, so she talked to the (jr. high) principal about it. The principal talked to the school superintendent and the high school principal. Then he checked the class list to see if the families of any of the kids were “staunchly Catholic.” There was at least one. So he told Barb to take the Darwin card back and give that kid a different one. She did as she was told, and the kid got Aristotle instead… who was a “humanist” but also a believer in God, so that was all right then. (Who says we don’t live in a theocracy?)

Evolution is only taught in the high school (but who knows with what equivocation). I asked Barb why the jr. high kids have to be shielded from such an important scientific concept, and she said because they’re too susceptible, too easily swayed at that age. In other words, by high school they’ve presumably been brainwashed sufficiently, and their minds will be closed to any teaching that controverts their parents’ prejudices. It galls me that kids have to be protected from actual facts but not from opinions, which religious views surely are.

As Barb was telling us about this one Friday night, I got outraged, of course. When I was done ranting, K told Barb she had done the right thing. “They [the kids] don’t have to know everything,” she said. My jaw dropped. Sometimes I don’t know who these people are.


So there you have it. My old woman memories, my DYI metaphysics, my shit capers, my impotent rage. I’ll be back next time with… I don’t know what. Life in the Midwest is what you make it, and I’m doing just fine. Don’t worry about my mental health. I am in close contact with the psychiatric profession, Oshkosh division… a stone’s throw (plus 2 hours by car) away.

Be well, my friends. And whatever you do, stay away from Applebee’s.

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