Posts Tagged ‘old’

mary’zine #51: September 2011

September 17, 2011

ode to Michigan

Henes Park, Menominee (photo by P. DuPont)





by Bob Hicok

I remember Michigan fondly as the place I go

to be in Michigan. The right hand of America

waving from maps or the left

pressing into clay a mold to take home

from kindergarten to Mother. I lived in Michigan

forty-three years. The state bird

is a chained factory gate. The state flower

is Lake Superior, which sounds egotistical

though it is merely cold and deep as truth.

A Midwesterner can use the word “truth,”

can sincerely use the word “sincere.”

In truth the Midwest is not mid or west.

When I go back to Michigan I drive through Ohio.

There is off I-75 in Ohio a mosque, so life

goes corn corn corn mosque, I wave at Islam,

which we’re not getting along with

on account of the Towers as I pass.

Then Ohio goes corn corn corn

billboard, goodbye, Islam. You never forget

how to be from Michigan when you’re from Michigan.

It’s like riding a bike of ice and fly fishing.

The Upper Peninsula is a spare state

in case Michigan goes flat. I live now

in Virginia, which has no backup plan

but is named the same as my mother,

I live in my mother again, which is creepy

but so is what the skin under my chin is doing,

suddenly there’s a pouch like marsupials

are needed. The state joy is spring.

“Osiris, we beseech thee, rise and give us baseball”

is how we might sound were we Egyptian in April,

when February hasn’t ended. February

is thirteen months long in Michigan.

We are a people who by February

want to kill the sky for being so gray

and angry at us. “What did we do?”

is the state motto. There’s a day in May

when we’re all tumblers, gymnastics

is everywhere, and daffodils are asked

by young men to be their wives. When a man elopes

with a daffodil, you know where he’s from.

In this way I have given you a primer.

Let us all be from somewhere.

Let us tell each other everything we can.

(Reprinted with permission of the author)




Friday night light

I ended the #50 mary’zine by wondering if I was the “gorilla” in my family, the one everyone has to tiptoe around when s/he’s being moody or all judgmental and withdrawn. I am happy to report that the answer is “No”! (Or at least “Not that often!”) Turns out it was my brother-in-law MP all along. I know this because he’s come out of whatever funk he was in for several months, and he’s like a different person. Is it because he (a) retired from a job he hated? (b) is finally getting help from the VA? or (c) was released from the torment of a mandatory weekly visit from his sisters-in-law? Maybe (d) all of the above. For whatever reason, he’s been a joy to be around lately, and our Friday nights have a completely different feel. So far, there have been only 3 of these post-gorilla occasions, but I’m hopeful that it’s a permanent change.

Barb and I now wait for an invitation to join K&MP at their house, order takeout, and have television-cum-conversation in sometimes surreal combinations. MP still has control of the TV remote; some nights it stays off entirely while we chat and reminisce and make off-color references (me and MP) or converse like ladies (Barb and K), and K gets up repeatedly to fetch pop (“soda” to the rest a yooz) or bring a load of laundry down to or up from the basement. The rest of us sit on our asses until we have to use the bathroom. I more and more think that the content of the conversation is not the point, it’s the contact. So MP and I exchange “witticisms” while Barb and K and sometimes my nephew JP and his girlfriend have entirely other conversations that I only barely attend to. Or, JP and MP get talking about cars and trucks, while we “girls” try to make our voices heard on more domestic topics, the cats and so forth.

Sometimes, MP’s trigger finger gets itchy, and he randomly turns on or off the TV… just to see what’s on, I guess, and then to decide he’s bored. So all of a sudden, the news or a movie will come blaring on, to which we do or do not pay attention, depending. At one point we’re watching the news about a guy who spent 11 hours treading water while waiting to be rescued after his small plane went down in Lake Huron, and we see him in the water holding briefly to the tail of an airplane (which had to have been a reenactment—weird). He’s describing how he held on as long as he could, and then he says, “And then… she’s going down…,” and I pipe up, “Honey, this is neither the time nor the place,” and only K hears me, but she laughs harder than I’ve ever seen her laugh before, a kind of one-two punch as she registers the joke and then really gets it. MP and Barb have been talking about some problem with her car, and MP sees K laughing and wants to know why, and I’m like, you had to be there. Nothing worse than having to repeat a punch line. (And yet, that’s exactly what I’ve done here. Oh well.)

The next time we got together, I happened to have 2 Netflix DVDs, Source Code and The Adjustment Bureau, both sci-fi, not usually my cup of tea, but they were both a hit with the group.

One night, while K and Barb were picking up our burgers from Mickey-Lu’s, I asked my nephew if he was serious when he said he would have driven down to Chicago to get me when I was stranded at O’Hare Airport for 3 days last December. I was trying to think of a Plan B that would make me less terrified of flying to San Francisco the next time I go. He said he would do it (he used to be a long-haul trucker), but it would be nice if I chipped in for gas, and I assured him that I’d pay him whatever I would have paid for a night at the Hilton, and he was all for that. Then MP said he’d like to go along for the ride. The conversation got increasingly fantastical as one of them proposed that they could drive me to San Francisco, spend the 7 days of my painting intensive going up to Oregon to drop in on my friend P (whom they know), and then pick me up and drive me back home. MP figured out how much the gas would cost, while I silently considered the cost to my sanity of riding with those guys for several days. When K and Barb got back with our food, we told them what we had been talking about, and K grinned and said she could use a break. Barb thought she meant that she would come with us (whereas Barb would have to stay here to take care of all our cats), but I’m quite sure she was referring to a break from her dear husband.

So, recent Friday nights have been quite raucous, in a good way—though now and then the spice of contrarian politics rears its head. We’re watching a true-crime show when JP announces, “Criminals have more rights than I do!” I think he’s talking about rights in the courtroom, so I say that it’s not that “criminals” have rights, but “the accused” have rights, and any of us could be accused and would be glad for that. But he’s referring to the fact that the killer on the TV gets to keep filing appeals to have his sentence reduced. (It never was.) Then MP starts listing all the perks that prisoners get: “3 squares a day,” a bed, free education, free lawyering, etc. I point out that they can’t leave, and I suggest he go out and rob a bank and join them, if he thinks they have it so good. He gets frustrated and says I don’t understand. “I believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth: If you steal, you get your hand cut off,” he says. I tell him he should go live in an Arab country then. For every point he makes, I’ve got a response—a glib one, true, but it’s something, and I’m kind of having fun with it. But finally K chimes in and threatens jokingly, “I’ll have to send you all to your rooms if you can’t get along.” She would let the 2 guys rant and rave all night, but if I express even the mildest objection to something they say, oh-oh, it’s time to call it off. This annoys me no end, but OK, that’s just the way she is, can’t stand any vocal disagreement (though I know she disagrees with plenty). She’d rather everyone keep their head down and keep their opinions to themselves. So our “argument” winds down with one last response to the TV show, in which the mother whose son was killed says she’ll never forgive the killer. (I wish I could make my family watch Dead Man Walking, one of the most profound movies ever made.) JP leans over to me and says quietly, “I have trouble forgiving,” and I say, “Everyone does.” With that, our “point/counterpoint” is over, and I don’t get the sense that either of the guys holds my liberal-wacko opinions against me. In fact, MP goes on to talk about his horrible upbringing, getting beaten by his dad, no money, no privacy or individual ownership in a family with 12 kids, etc. etc. I listen sympathetically to this story I’ve heard many times before, and I feel deep compassion for him. I ask him why he’s feeling better lately, and he says his migraines are mostly gone now that he’s away from that job. This makes me happy, and not only because our Friday nights are more pleasant. Now if only K could retire from her factory job.

JP takes me outside to show me the trailer MP bought for hauling their 4-wheelers around. He’ll use it when he comes over to Aunt Mary’s house to plow the snow away and denude my lawn. I feel like I’m making a difference in this small town and in the lives of my family. A big part of it is financial: I pay good money for the plowing, the house cleaning, the what-have-you. And I love them, whether or not they “deserve” it, and whether or not I deserve to have it reciprocated. It’s a big feeling in this small town, in this big house, in this sometimes constricted heart. We all have trouble forgiving, trouble loving, trouble being true. But the more I leave it alone, trust myself, and not beat myself up for my many lapses in compassion, the more true I feel. And that feels good.




inhabiting my life

I have a couple of friends who are going through some big changes, and it got me thinking about how I’ve probably made my last big change and I have nothing much to say when someone asks me “What’s new?” I dined out for years on my story of moving back to my Midwestern hometown from California, but I’m no longer special on that front. I had the same feeling of “This is it” when I was working at UCSF. Then, I had the “end of the line” feeling again when the Radiobiology lab got shut down and I was just old enough to retire from UC. My new “final” change (I thought) was starting my own editing business. No way was I prepared to even consider moving myself and Pookie lock-stock-and-barrel back to the formerly despised place of my birth. And now, after that miracle, for which “I changed my mind” is a woefully inadequate descriptor, here I am… rooted in my Michigan rootedness, not foreseeing any major changes coming up for me except, you know, death. (My deepest wish is that death will come before “human warehousing.” That was my mother’s deepest wish, too, but when her wish came true she resented it bitterly. Is there no pleasing some people?)

My friend T and I were talking about this, because she had had the same feeling of “OK, this is where I’ve ended up,” but now she had taken the huge step of leaving a long-term relationship and moving into a place by herself. I was feeling kind of envious of her new single life, because I remembered what a big, scary, exciting life-changer it was for me, back when I did the same. But she said something very wise, which was that, far from being confined and defined by my roots, I’m inhabiting my life. What I tend to think of as an absence of newness and potential is a genuine letting down and letting go of a lifetime of anxiety. I’m no longer searching for my self and my life’s work and meaning: I’m living it. Inhabiting one’s life may not have the gleam and glamour of being perpetually on the move (the famous rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic); it’s a different way of being. Long familiarity with depression and anxiety—and political and spiritual peer pressure at different times in my life—makes me suspicious of “being happy,” of enjoying my quotidian life “too much,” as if it’s a crime to just be. I’m following my interest wherever it takes me, the #1 lesson I learned from painting. Currently, it’s watching all the past seasons of Friday Night Lights, one of the best TV shows ever. And filling my head with ideas and my house with books. Enjoying my cats and my “yard birds” and other critters. Phone-talking and e-mailing with friends in faraway places. Getting together with sisters for trips to Green Bay or the movies. Watching Breaking Bad with Barb on Sunday nights. Writing this ‘zine. A life of quiet, which is essential to me.

So now I have a new way to view my life, not as an absence of Big Stories but as the reality of living: the gerund that trumps the abstract noun (grammar is life): the rootedness that is appropriate to my age and ideal to my space, my big house* and my beloved Henes Park, the memories that swim up from the depths as I drive past Bay de Noc Road and look down it toward the site of so many traumas and good things, too, the buttercups and violets, the freedom of woods and sand hills and no supervision as long as I stayed out of sight of the house. It all delights me now, the trees, the smokestacks, the beautiful bay and river, the working class feel of the place. The trust in myself to remain open to possibilities, to follow my (as it were) bliss. I’ve never been happier.

*Finally, for the first time ever, someone—my contractor’s brother-in-law—referred to my “big house” as a “nice big house.” And it is, but it was gratifying to be reminded that not everyone thinks I’m insane for occupying all this space.


I suppose I could have ended on this positive note, but now I’m going to explore a potential outcome with darker overtones: the aforementioned human warehousing, a.k.a. forced group living reminiscent of ye olde dormitory life, with or without dementia.




(illustration by Souther Salazar)




the scariest F word (Future)

The world is subdued today. Like I am behind a veil, looking out. The colors pastel and faded, my senses dulled. My vision slightly obscured by the veil. It’s not unpleasant. But it can be dangerous. You think that you are hidden from them, behind your veil, and suddenly you realize that you’ve been visible the whole time. Exposed. —Alice LaPlante, Turn of Mind

Turn of Mind is a novel about a 64-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s. Nothing to do with me, of course, though I am 64, soon to join the entitled ranks of the Medicare’d for. I’m glad I don’t have the A-word disease yet, because, between the University of California and the federal government, I can hardly follow the instructions for filling out the forms for Part A, Part B, Part C, Part D, the plans (the plan… the plan…), the requirements, sign here, group number there, Do you still work? (not if I can help it), the dire warnings if you sign up for the wrong plan. A thick book Medicare & You (which is even more intimidating than Menstruation & You was, in the day) arrives in the mail, along with a virtually incomprehensible “explanation” of my future benefits from the Social Security Administration. For months I’ve been getting eager letters of invitation from every insurance company in the Midwest, hoping to snag some Alphabetical Part of my geriatric lifestyle. Before I started throwing them out unopened, I read one that tried to play on my Boomer sense of entitlement by asking, “Did you ever think you would be so popular??” “Why no!,” I thought. “Tell me more!”

The quotation from the novel elicited both a queasy memory and a sense of foreboding. I remembered, as a kid, singing to myself while seated under a hairdryer at the beauty salon, unaware that the sound that drowned out my voice in my own head did not prevent the other women in the place from hearing me. When I realized this, I stopped singing, mortified. (But why?—a question for another day.) And the foreboding thought was, Will that be me someday, “coming to” from a period of unself-consciousness only to wonder what I did or said while dissociating?

(When I looked up to check the meaning of “foreboding,” I noticed an ad for Miracle Whip—a great name, you gotta admit. “We’re not for everyone,” it boasts. “Are you Miracle Whip?” This seemed an odd way to phrase a sandwich spread preference. Is it a new construction riding the coattails of “I am Mac” and “I am PC”? I’m not going to say “I am Mac” [though I am], and I’m certainly not going to say “I am Miracle Whip”—or maybe that’s one of the embarrassing-in-retrospect comments I will make while demented, especially since there’s bound to be some slippage: “I am Miracle!” “I am Whip!”)

Anyway, I’m of two minds about all this, because if you lose one mind it would be nice to have another one to fall back on, ha-ha {THEY’RE COMING TO TAKE ME AWAY}. In my present state, in which I am blessedly sane and composed {HAHAHAHA}, my desire for control of all aspects of my life is absolute. Never before have I had such freedom to indulge any whim… to sleep whenever, eat what- and whenever. And it kills me to think about having none of those freedoms anymore. Yet I have a concurrent fantasy of being so far beyond self-control that I would be relieved of responsibility or choice or filling out forms or paying my bills on time, or even having bills. Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up from that dissociative state and know you can’t be blamed for anything untoward that happened, leaving someone else, probably some poorly paid immigrant, to clean up the mess? As usual, I’m caught between extremes, and what will surely happen instead is that I will not be demented but will simultaneously have no control, like when I lived in a dorm at MSU. There, I quickly established myself as a rebel who sneered at mandatory group activities intended to socialize me into polite society. At least there was an alternative culture waiting to greet me in the late ‘60s, but who will I be forced to rub shoulders with if I end up in a nursing home? Will dementia be a preferable alternative to my lifelong social uneasiness, or will it make things worse? Will I be able to write about it? … because I think it would be quite interesting, if I could periodically regain lucidity long enough to turn on my laptop and send a few salient observations to my blog—they’ll let me bring my laptop, won’t they? or am I supposed to revert to the old-timey kind of old person who can’t see, hear, or walk and loves Lawrence Welk? I don’t live in the most modern-thinking area in the world, so I’m not sure how far I’ll be able to take my Web, Zine, and Painting lives. Speaking of which, what will happen to my paintings? And my painting process? Will I be allowed to paint naked women and eyes on trees during the Arts and Crafts hour, or will I have to go stealth and pretend deep satisfaction with outlining my hand to make a turkey for Thanksgiving? (The other side of the paper will hold my true imagery, the hearts, tubes, knives, blood, and “fabric of the universe.”)

I know I’m getting myself all in a dither over something that may never happen, but I am nearing the narrow end of the funnel, the last grains of sand in the hourglass (and no turning it over; Life does not work like Boggle), the final ride over the hump of the waterfall*, nothing known or (maybe worse) something known and horrible waiting at the bottom of the plunge, like reliving all my most embarrassing moments. The fact that I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten an embarrassing moment in my life may protect me from being blindsided, though blindsiding is exactly what happened to the woman in the novel I quoted, to my child self under the hair dryer, and to my adult self hobbling through SFO with a toilet seat cover hanging out the back of my pants. Is it too much to hope for to be conscious but not self-conscious, to be free and not care what anyone thinks? I’ve always felt unable to bend or blend, to go with the flow, skip over the rough parts. As a “psychic chiropractor” once told me, “You feel every bump in the road.” (Though I don’t think it took psychic abilities to discern that. I think it’s written all over my face, along with the map of Ireland.) I seem to be doomed to remain painfully aware of all my shortcomings: awkward, insensitive, judgmental yet lacking in judgment (“common sense”)—stop me if I’m being too hard on myself—and determined to be special if it kills me. In the plus column, I believe I have a good heart, but even that can turn on a dime and give a nickel change.

*Apropos of absolutely nothing, there are pictures circulating online of Niagara Falls without water. They had to dam the river in 1969 to do some sort of repairs (not sure how you repair a waterfall). I don’t know why it should affect me so, but there’s something about that big dirt-brown, naked-looking, scraggly cliff atop a giant collection of rubble, ugly without the flashy and powerful force of nature’s elixir tumbling down, stripped of its glory to reveal nothing but an ordinary sharp drop-off with the promise of a hard landing. It was like seeing the squat man behind the curtain, nature’s own Oz demystified…. as if all the great wonders of the world could be similarly deconstructed to expose the fact, finally and forevermore, that we live on a big, slowly-spinning-in-mid-air ball of dirt and rocks.

nude Niagara Falls, 1969





“Twenty, twenty, twenty-four hours a day…”

Once a year, I have to drive down to central Wisconsin for a 15-minute drug-monitoring session with my psychiatrist—I’m still taking sertraline, a generic Zoloft. (“Sertraline” sounds like a top-of-the-line mattress.) Recently, Dr. V.’s office moved from Oshkosh to Neenah, thus shaving 40 miles off my round trip—from 200 down to 160. No, I couldn’t find anyone closer. And I like the guy a lot. (I wonder, though, how much satisfaction there is in being a psychiatrist these days: You’re basically a glorified pharmacist.)

Because I hadn’t been to this office (or Neenah) before, Barb lent me her GPS device. All I had to do was drive straight down US 41 for most of the way, but I discovered that global positioning doesn’t always help when you’re trying to position yourself locally. Turns out I was not prepared to navigate the Neenah version of “roundabouts.” I thought I had conquered the concept of a roundabout: Car goes in, car drives in a semi-circle, car goes out. But these ones were devilish, because there was a lot of traffic and I didn’t know where I was going. At the first one I encountered, the GPS voice, which I will call Gloria, told me to “enter the roundabout,” but I got confused (quelle surprise!) by the myriad of lanes and made a right turn instead. So Gloria directed me to make a left down the street, another left, another left, and a right and back to the roundabout. I didn’t fare any better this time. I didn’t know what she meant by “take the second exit” and I wasn’t at all sure who was to yield to whom. While watching for cars, I was trying to get a glimpse of a street sign, plus count “exits.” Again, I didn’t get off at the right place and I ended up going back the way I had come. Gloria, with the patience of a saint, or a robot, told me where to turn, turn, turn, turn and get back. Unfortunately, down where I was turning, I had to go through another roundabout, where there was less traffic, but I still made at least one wrong turn there and had to try again. I headed back to the Mother of all roundabouts, and this time I again missed the correct “exit” and found myself on the street going off to the left. (Actually, I may have repeated the “back from whence I came” move. It’s almost as difficult to describe it as it was to do it.) Every time I made a mistake, Gloria hesitated for a suspenseful 2 seconds and then said, “Recalculating.” Which I found re-dispiriting. By the end of my ordeal, I was saying out loud, “Don’t say ‘recalculating’!” So I approached the roundabout again, and this time the only option left open to me was to go straight, if only I could figure out which “exit” would take me in that direction.

It’s a miracle that I whipped in and out of 2 roundabouts a total of 6 times without getting creamed, or creaming someone else. I suspect that the locals watch out for us out-of-town bozos who’ve never been to the big city before: More than one driver waved me on when I hesitated, not knowing who was to yield. Frankly, I’d rather wait for a red light. As I said, I get the concept of the roundabout, but not knowing where I was going did a number on my brain. Plus, my brain takes everything literally and returns to zero after every mental calculation. It takes me a while to integrate what I’m seeing with what I already know; therefore, I’m not burdened by “knowing too much.” Boy, am I not burdened by knowing too much. This has served me well in my work, believe it or not, because every manuscript is a new puzzle to solve and I’m delightfully unbiased—that’s it, unbiased—as if seeing the words and ideas for the first time.

Fortunately, I had left myself enough time to make any number of dumb mistakes, so I still had half an hour to wait once I found Dr. V.’s office. When I got in there, I told him that I’m having the dreaded “restless legs syndrome” several times a week. (I should call it RLS, because “restless” sounds so trivial. “You have an ‘urge’ to move your legs? Well, I have an ‘urge’ to eat a dozen doughnuts at a time, but I restrain myself.”) You may remember that I spent an excruciating 8+ hours flying to and from San Francisco last December because of that terrible sensation in my legs. I had read that SSRIs can exacerbate the problem, so I had wanted to ask Dr. V. about reducing the dosage of sertraline. But I’d recently been reminded of what happens when I’m left to my own emotional devices (story for another day), and no way was I going back to a life of constant anxiety relieved only by bouts of debilitating depression.

So anyway—is it too late to say “long story short”?—Dr. V told me about the various medications that can help with RLS. He cautioned me about the side-effects, though. One class of these drugs is highly addictive, and the other can make you psychotic. I pondered the dilemma for a moment, forefinger to my chin, and finally said, “I’ll take addiction.” He said he wasn’t worried about that in my case anyway, because I don’t have “an addictive personality.” I asked how he knew, and he said, “Because you don’t drink a case of beer every night.” I almost asked how he knew that (I’ve spent 15 minutes a year in his presence, for a total of about an hour and a half), but I didn’t, because time was almost up. I’m not going to tell you the name of the drug, because one or more of you would surely look it up and tell me all the horrible things it could do to me. Come to think of it, one or more of you will probably tell me I shouldn’t be taking drugs at all. Well, forget that noise! (as we say in this part of the world). I remember when I had a 9-pound (as it turned out) ovarian tumor growing inside me and I was about to go under the knife in 3 days, when a “holistic” friend of mine urged me to drink some sort of special organic tea instead. But now I’m older, wiser, and definitely more stubborn, so I appreciate your (hypothetical) concern, but no thanks. I can’t get on an airplane again until I deal with this problem. Which reminds me, also, of the time another well-meaning friend assured me that my air sickness was psychological, so the next time I flew I didn’t take Dramamine. I figured, the plane doesn’t really have that much motion, like a bus does, so what the heck? But as the plane started to rise into the air, my stomach rapidly descended to wherever it goes when it wants to throw up. I hurriedly popped a Dramamine and held on tight until the nausea subsided. Actually, it’s not really holistic solutions I object to… it’s advice.

After I left Dr. V.’s office, I entered the address of El Sarape in Green Bay into Gloria’s positioning system, made it through the Problem roundabout with no trouble, and went on to have a delightful Mexican lunch. Then another hour to get home, where I collapsed in my comfy chair with my comfy cats and slept the day away. I was whipped. It was a miracle.

And now I shall say adieu. Make of this hodgepodge what you will. And like me on Facebook! (just kidding)

gratuitous woodpecker image (so many pretty things on the webs)



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 #43: March 2010

March 16, 2010

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

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

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

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

To which I responded:

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

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

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

makes you wanna holler!

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

old folks’ night out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Google me Elmo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fonda Fond du Lac

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

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

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #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 random redux #21: February 2002

January 6, 2010

This was my horoscope for the week of February 10, 2002:

Scorpio: A home office of sorts stirs your fancy. Maybe a suite, maybe a small corner. Whatever the size, time and effort spent there can change your life. Family matters are tricky, possibly bittersweet. Maybe you’ll use your home office for a little writing.

Yeah, I wish. I already have a home office, it’s no suite, and yes, the time and effort spent there have changed my life. (Plus, family matters are indeed tricky.) But I wish I had more time for “a little writing.”

I had high hopes for this issue. I usually write on Sunday, my one “day off” (if you don’t count housecleaning, bill paying, tax return preparing, large batches of spaghetti sauce making, etc. etc.). So I spent one whole Sunday chasing down filaments of thoughts that were begging to be woven together into a coherent, warm garment of prose. But now I don’t have time to follow up on all those threads, so I figured half an issue is better than none.

The good news/bad news is that I’m in overdrive, workwise. One of the publishers I’m working with makes its freelancers practically typeset the book; every paragraph, every heading, every bold or italic word, every superscript and subscript character has to be coded for the right format: e.g., PO{sb}4{end}{sp}3{-}{end}. The authors are two Brazilian professors, both very sweet, very learned, but not exactly up on their English syntax. (But to be fair, my Portuguese is terrible.) And the book—on histology, the study of the “minute structure of animal and plant tissues as discernible with the microscope”—is huge and has drawings and photomicrographs galore, with cryptic instructions by the Brazilians that I have to figure out and translate for the art studio. Oh, don’t get me started.

I’m editing another book for a different publisher, this one about microbes and fun diseases like anthrax and an even worse one called guinea worm disease…. I am doing you a big favor by not describing it to you.

Also, there are research papers, reports, and grant proposals coming in over the e-wires from Portugal, Italy, Austria, and right across the bay. I’ve been self-employed for a little over 5 years, and this is the most work I’ve had to juggle at one time. And when I’m not complaining about it, I’m thrilled. That’s the weird part, the saving grace. I love this. I wouldn’t take a regular job now. What used to be the scariest part of self-employment—not knowing where my next dollar was coming from—is now a source of pleasure, because now that I know I can count on fairly steady work, it’s exciting to know that my “next dollar,” or next 500 dollars, could come from anywhere at any time.

So instead of plumbing the depths of meaning and existence, the past, the future, the nature of everything—hey, maybe next time—I’m going to riff ‘n’ rant about a couple of things, share some wacky correspondence, and call it a ‘zine.


One of my favorite nicknames for Pookie is Goofball—a classic case of projection, I’m sure. I thought of this when I happened to catch a glimpse of myself in the full-length mirror before leaving to go for a walk this morning. Here’s the picture, from bottom to top: white Nikes, baggy black twill pants, gray t-shirt, green zippered jacket that could have been worn by my father in the ‘50s when he was fixing the car, dark “movie star” sunglasses, and a baseball cap with “Marin General Hospital” on the front. The glasses were the only cool item, but they didn’t help the ensemble one bit. Or rather, it’s my body that can’t pull off the neo-working-class-dyke look anymore. (My friends are divided on the appeal of those sunglasses anyway; most make the movie star connection, but last winter when I was walking with a cane because my back was in spasm, one friend asked in all seriousness if I was going blind.)

And I realized that it’s only going to get worse. When I’m old, I mean older, I’m not going to “wear purple” like the poem says. I’m going to look just like my mother, who also had a short dykey haircut and made odd fashion statements by not caring about fashion whatsoever. Believe it or not, I do care—but not enough to do anything about it. Pudgy face, pudgy body, it’s only a matter of time before I start putting my few remaining hairs up in curlers and wearing flower-print housedresses with white ankle socks and sensible shoes.

Hi, my name is Mary, and I am a goofball. I am not cool. I am going to be doddering soon. I think it’s time I learned to live with it instead of pretending to the world that “I’m not how I look.” The world had me pegged long ago, and why should I care? I’ve got my posse, and they love me just the way I am.

But I must get back to work now! Fortunately, I was able to pillage my voluminous files and find this story about a shopping incident from the not-too-distant past….

the Long’s way home

One day I drop into Long’s Drugs to make a quick purchase. All I need is one of those Glade deodorizers that you plug into a socket—I’m on a crusade to mask the aroma of eau du Pooké, if you know what I mean. After much aimless wandering around the store, I finally find the shelf with the confusing array of Glade Plug-InsR-related products—your Scented Oil (“an exciting breakthrough in home fragrancing”), your refills, your extra outlets. It’s hard to know if the Scented Oil is the thing itself, or if maybe it’s just the exciting breakthrough that you attach to the thing itself. But I don’t find anything that looks more like a basic unit, so after eliminating the refills, the snowman novelty warmer, and the extra outlets, I decide that the Scented Oil (“NEW WARMER Uses only ONE Outlet”) is indeed IT. Then I have to decide which “enchanting, no fade scent” I want. I choose the one called Vanilla BreezeR, on the theory that Country GardenR would be too cloying and “vanilla” at least implies an olfactory connection with baking. (I am so gullible.)

With my selection in hand, I proceed briskly to the express line, which is clearly labeled “9 items or less” (“or fewer,” I mentally edit). The woman in line ahead of me seems to have more than 9 items, so I silently count them. Stop at 10, get all indignant.

I really want to be on my way with my 1 measly item, so I weigh my options. The other lines are likely to be worse, and if I say something to the woman about being in the wrong line, it will be completely pointless, because now—I’ve waited too long—the clerk is ringing her stuff up  (v e r y  s l o w l y—there’s a reason they call it L o n g ‘ s). It will also be petty. Do I just want to make this woman feel bad? Well, shouldn’t she feel just a little bad? We live in a society. It has rules. My usual tactic in this situation is to stand there and seethe and hope the pissed-off molecules radiating off me will penetrate the object of my scorn. They rarely do, but I’m eternally optimistic. So I look pointedly up at the sign and back at the woman, and I will her to hear me silently screaming, DOES THAT LOOK LIKE 9 ITEMS TO YOU??

For whatever reason, probably just generalized hostility, I decide to go for it. I say to the woman, “express line you know.”

She turns and looks at me, confused. “What?”

I mutter into my chest, “express line.” (My rage is big and bad when it’s seething inside, but it deflates on contact with the air.)

The woman looks up at the sign, and there’s a moment when our relationship—fleeting though it may be, and defined only by our proximity and the fact of my 1-item virtue compared with her profligate spending in the wrong line—can go either way. It’s a fork in the road of the social construct known as the “point of purchase,” where everyone is in a hurry, even if they’ve just spent half an hour poring over all the possible choices of deodorizers.

The woman, bless her, takes the road less traveled by when she says, “Oh, I’m SORRY. I didn’t see that. I just saw the sign that said they take ATM cards.”

Of course, when someone responds that way to a mild-mannered complaint, you completely forgive them and want to rush to assure them that it’s perfectly OK—even when, as I now realize, it turns out she’s returning something and the clerk has to write the equivalent of the Magna Carta on a tag and then again on the box, and the woman has to run her ATM card through the little machine twice because she’s flustered, having racked up $135 (!) worth of more than 10 items while I’m standing there waiting to buy my little Glade Plug-InR.

So by now I totally want to save her further embarrassment—whereas, if she had reacted snidely, I’d be writing this story up as a curmudgeonly rant about her probable ownership of an SUV and her self-centered life in general. So, as we watch the clerk labor over her chore, I say in a comradely manner, “This is the slowest place in the world anyway.” And she replies that Thrifty at Northgate is even worse, and I respond, “Yeah?,” and we go back to waiting, and I look in the other direction at the end-of-aisle specials—the Pillsbury cake mixes and the elaborate plastic water Uzis—as if I’m fascinated by all the wonderful things for sale and completely unconcerned by how long this is taking.

After another minute or two, she says again, “I’m really sorry,” and I say, “That’s OK.”

The geologic clock is ticking, but the clerk manages to complete the transaction before the next Ice Age arrives. The woman gathers up her bags and says one more “I’m sorry” for the road. As she’s rushing off, I call to her, “That’s OK, you were really nice about it.” And she turns and gives me a genuine smile and says, “You were, too,” and I smile back, and I feel as if little bluebirds are twittering around our heads and bunny rabbits are frolicking at our feet just like in the happy part of “Snow White.” As simple and seemingly mundane as our interaction was, we succeeded in modeling right relationship between strangers, possibly the only hope for humanity in these perilous times of road, air, and store rage, not to mention ye olde terrorism and hockey-dad furiosity.

Of course I’m not saying that the war on terrorism or even the war on rabid sports fathers will be won by our all being just a little nicer to one another. But I do believe in the profound effect of tiny actions and tiny choices. The microworld of matter—bacteria, atoms, quarks, and God knows what else—is a real force in the world we can see, so how could the microworld of consciousness not be at least as powerful?

So I recommend that we extend ourselves just slightly beyond our own boundaries and put ourselves in someone else’s place when we can—not to usurp them, not even to move them, but simply to call a moment’s truce in the middle of the battlefield of life and to hear the cartoon bluebirds come twittering around our heads in cheerful abandon.

p.s. Here is my review of the Glade Plug-InR: The “long-lasting rich fragrance that unfolds throughout your home for a full 60 days” is so strong and so sweet that you feel as if you’re being prematurely embalmed. If you enjoy that sensation, by all means, go for it.

fan mail from some flounder

As author, editor, and publisher of the mary’zine, I get some interesting mail. (Not enough, but what I do get is great.) The other day, amid the usual snail’d collection of junk and bills, I received something unique, to say the least. It appeared to be a letter from my old friend K in Michigan, but there was a name I didn’t recognize in the return address: “Skelly, c/o….” Inside, nestled between two sheets of notepaper, was a soft-plastic skeleton, about 4 inches high, and the following carefully printed letter:

Dearest Mary—

Have I found a home at last? When my mistress K— read that you keep tiny skeletons in lipstick cases, she was certain that you would not turn me away. She has been looking for an appropriate—and loving—home for me ever since the little daughter of her best friend (who also once gave her a much treasured lipstick case… but she keeps lipstick in it, if you can imagine) gave me to her for Halloween.

K—, who is marking her poor, failing aunt’s underpants tonight with the name “R—“ in big black letters so she can take them to the retirement home tomorrow, wants me to tell you that Michigan isn’t really so bad, despite Skip et al. In fact, she and D— enjoy vacationing in the very geographic area (well, the U.P., that is) that you fear to return to (or rather, to which you fear to return). She also wants me to tell you that she ordered the back pain book and has read every word… and thinks there may be some sense in it. Well, I certainly don’t need to worry about my back too much. What color lipstick case might I call home do you suppose??


P.S. I love cats… and K— may soon get a DOG……

P.P.S. I hope the P.O. doesn’t think I’m anthrax or something.

Well, as you might imagine, this was quite a surprise, but I was more than happy to give the wayfaring—nay, banished—bony little stranger a home. Later, in my e-mail out-box, I found the following letter that Skelly him/her/itself wrote to K—:

Dear K—,

Just thought I’d drop you a line to say I arrived chez Mary safe and sound and none the worse for wear, considering the long journey. I have to admit I had my doubts when you stuffed me in that envelope and sent me off to take my chances in those brutal postal machines—fortunately I’m already flat. I stayed very still so they wouldn’t suspect me of being a bacterium.

Anyhoo, now that I’m here, I’m happy as can be. You wouldn’t believe the weather! It’s practically balmy! You can take your snow and shove(l) it, my dear! WOOOOO-OOOOO…. Sorry, I’m getting a little carried away.

Mary is SO NICE. And her house is full of my people!—all shapes and sizes, doing all sorts of interesting things. I don’t know where I’m going to bunk yet. I’m too big for a lipstick case, that’s for sure! She’s been giving me a tour of the place and trying to decide just where I’d be most comfortable.

The Cat is kind of intimidating, but his meow is worse than his scratch. He’s even taken me under his paw and showed me how to use the computer.

Well, gotta go. Thanks again for caring enough to find me a good home, one where I would be truly appreciated.

As always, Skelly

p.s. Mary thought my letter was pretty funny and wanted me to ask you if she could print it in something called a… zeen? As you recall, I made a couple of personal remarks about you, not to mention your poor aunt, so she will understand if you want to remain anonymous and unheralded. But thanks to you, I’ve discovered that I really enjoy writing, so I may take knucklebone to keyboard again sometime, if the Cat doesn’t mind giving me another lift up.

The next day, I was lucky enough to intercept K’s reply:

Dear Skelly,

I am relieved that you have at last found a cozy resting place, despite the cat. (Now that you’re gone, we’re thinking of getting a Corgi—and you know how puppies love to chew.) You never did look very comfortable in the old ashtray in the cupboard.

Tell Mary she can reprint the letter, although I can’t remember most of it. Did you even show it to me? If you mentioned my aunt’s rather unusual last name, perhaps she will change it or use just the first letter or something. Who knows how many R—s might be out there in that state. In fact, her father spent a bit of time gold prospecting there in the 19th century—maybe he left bastards behind.

Well, I must return to some BORING citation editing. Give Mary my best and thank her often for her kindness.

Bottoms up. K

Skelly now resides in my home office, pinned to a bulletin board where I can rest my weary eyes upon him/her/it as I’m toiling away. If s/he doesn’t like it, s/he knows where the mailbox is.


is she gone

yeah, that pin was ridiculously easy to pull out. give me a boost up, will you… thanks.

no problem… youre a skinny little thing arent you… so how do you like her royal highness so far…

well, other than her weird sense of humor, she’s really cool… so thoughtful and kind… why are you laughing?

all in due time, my bony little friend, all in due time

and she’s got a point. i am he/she/it. i am beyond sex roles and of course sex itself. i am truly trans-sexual.

dude… youre a hunk o plastic

maybe… but i represent the foundation and the future of embodiment… the flesh is weak but the skeletal structure goes on Forever.

hey how did you make that capital letter

all in due time, my fat furry friend… all in due time.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #25 December 2002

January 6, 2010

play tell

A quiet week in, like, Woebegone? No way! I’m gone like daddio, long gone. I’m gone and I’m down, I’m goin’ downtown, so watch me rhyme and turn on a dime.

My musical tastes change periodically, every 10 years or so eventually, the osmotic mass tedium does its thing and I’m no more medium I’m hot on the wing. Just call me M, I’m all about Michi-gan and Eminem. He’s from the thumb, down De-troit way, prob’ly never been Up where I come from but that’s OK.

Never thought I’d see the day but I gotta say/ Life’s too short to be all snooty, what am I, a goody-goody? Eminem rocks, I gotta be sayin’ it/ Music’s so fine I got to be playin’ it/ 8 Mile’s the bomb-a slice of Detroit dram-a/ Eminem is hearable, sometimes unbearable/ I wish he’d lay off the ho’s on the cock talk, but he’s from that walk/ It don’t make him a bum necessarily just an accessory to the hip-hop legacy/ He’ll grow out of it, there’s no doubt about it/ Cuz he ain’t dum and he loves his daughter, it’ll get harder to be her father and rag on those bitches, he’ll find his niche(s), his growth as an artist/ I’m tryin’ my hardest but got to get me sum funny fore I lose you, honey/ I can’t stop I really mean it/ hip-hop on the brain/ I’m bein’ it/ If I’m goin’ batty least I got a beat, got it from my daddy…O!

Act my age? I’m in between/ The boomers span the X, Y and ‘Zine/ You new generation with all due veneration we ain’t dead yet you wanna bet? You’ll get your turn when we’re spinnin’ in our urn/ We’ll haunt you 4-ever, wait till you’re makin’ fun of gens A B whatever/ We all gotta die but we don’t gotta lie down and take it/ Dylan Thomas himself may be rappin’ down under/ Hippin’ and hoppin’ his pomes like thunder.

I say music with a beat, no matter how primitive is just as neat as the old masters’ sheet/ John Belushi on SNL doin’ his Beethoven jive. He be sittin’ at the piano in his freakin’ white wig, composin’ like a 19th century prig, but nothin’ sounds quite right/ Then on comes the bulb of light and all of a sudden he break into a Motown gig, baby o baby I don’t mean maybe, you dig? It always made me wonder why rock’n’roll couldn’t have been invented a coupla centuries younger. Why did it have to be so evolutionarily gradual? I guess your ears have to become more accustomed and agile to hear certain rhythms and rhymes. Good times! It ain’t all about bein’ young, son, where you think you come form?

Last time I didn’t rhyme, I wrote about my trip back in time to my place of origin (POO) to see my family of origin (FOO) for my brother-in-law’s funeral, who? Skip to my Mary Lou, I’m happy to report that my feelings of connections were not an illusion (sometimes these conversions can be a short fusion).

That’s right, peeps, I’m all about the U.P. It’s like a dam burst and let out the part of me that never left the hood or the sticks or the roots (don’t fail me, foots), I been shunnin ‘em so long, I never questioned my attitude or my latitude. Know what? They call Menominee-Marinette the Bay Area too, and I live in Marin the big sis of Marin-ette where my l’il sis gets her due/ And now at plus 55 I realize I just been keepin’ my prejudices alive. I’m still rather stunned by this fork in the road, I’m almost undone. But Barb and K it don’t faze ‘em none. I told ‘em when I was there, “I feel like I got my family back!,” and they don’t say jack, I guess to them I never left, or I been gone so long it looks like up to them, that’s just who I am—Mary from California who’s so gay she has to eat three times a day. As a McKenney, this temporal disconnect is one of many, like when you disappear for a year or more then show up at the door, yer car idlin’ in the drive while the missus goes inside, you just take up where you left off and then you up and leave again/ The roots don’t move but your bloomin’ head’s got to be groovin’ like dandelions a-blowin’ in the wind/ What you got to prove, that you know where you been?

I been there and back, I’m not off the track/ I am who I am at my core/ And more, my peeps are part of me, hellooo Menominee….

[2009 update: You’d think I’d be embarrassed to put this rhymin’ crap on the World Wide Map. But it’s quite liberatin’ to be old and irrepressible, not so much responsible. Forget that old saw, that anythin’ worth doin’ is worth doin’ well, I’m just huffin’ and puffin’ and playin’ to tell.]


My sister Barb and I have been e-mailing just about every day since my September visit. It’s humbling to realize how much goes on back there that you don’t know about if you live 2000 miles away. My mother used to write me all the time, but then it seemed like news from the Old Country. Coming from my sister, for some reason, it feels real and contemporary.

I’ve asked Barb for permission to quote a few of her e-mails, because they illustrate that life is rich, complicated, tragic, and comic wherever you are, whether your town has good restaurants and bookstores or not. Living in a small town—did I ever say? pop. 12,000 or so in Menominee (MI), 14,000 or so across the river in Marinette (WI)—and being close to your family can be a great existence. (Me, I need a little distance.)

(Notes indicated by superscript numbers follow the third e-mail.)

Subject: Local news you wouldn’t believe

Date: Sun, 13 Oct 2002 00:25:08 -0500

Dear Mary,

With all the other stuff I told you, I forgot to tell you of the excitement in town.

Thursday, it seems that a large ship, trying to get through the Menekaunee bridge, hit the left side of the bridge and then in trying to correct itself hit the right side of the bridge. The bridge, which is the one I take to work every day, will be closed for 2 weeks for repair. Estimated cost $60,000.

Friday, on my way home from school, it was announced on the radio that people should avoid going in the downtown area as a train had derailed that morning and the roads there were closed. Turned out they were two chemical tankers, but luckily they were empty. Scientists said the chemicals they would have been carrying would not have been lethal if they mixed, but they were below high power lines and that would have been a real problem.

Friday night, B announced that C (his ex-wife, who is the mother of _____ and _____ ) was held at gunpoint and shot at by her boyfriend’s dad. He had been drinking and apparently had a Vietnam flashback. He told his dog to watch his back and that he would watch his. She is OK, just shaken up some. B was pretty upset that she has brought _____ and _____ over there several times knowing this guy was not quite right.

That’s it. Take care. I love you.

Love, Barb

When Barb wrote me that she had baked 15 dozen chocolate chip cookies to give to friends and family who had helped with the roofing project, I replied, somewhat disingenuously, that I wished I had some. With my birthday coming up, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to drop a hint. (BAM! That’s the sound of my hint hitting the floor.) She came through.

Subject: Package coming of cookies

Date: Sun, 27 Oct 2002 20:41:10 -0800

Dear Mary,

My company of Lorraine, A.J., and Cody just left. I am about to go to the kitchen and start making your chocolate chip cookies. I will then Overnight them to you tomorrow so they will be nice and fresh. Please DO NOT wait until your birthday to open this package from me, as that will negate everything I am trying to do. There will be a couple of other things in there that you can wait until your birthday to open,1 but get to those cookies right away.2 I am sending a pet for your skeleton.3 Hope you enjoy the treat and your birthday.

Kay also found something you will enjoy,4 but is having a hard time finding a box for it, so asked me to tell you it will arrive a little late for your birthday.

I know you didn’t want to start the whole birthday thing going again, but it’s so much fun when you know more about the person for whom you are shopping. Ooooh, proper English.

Spent the day yesterday with Summer and Darien shopping and going out to lunch. We had a good time. Bruce and his son Andy came over today and we dismantled the park.5 Brian showed up just as we were finishing. Got it done in about 3 hours. Not too bad. Only nice day this week; 45 degrees. It is suppose to be below 30 for the rest of this week. Brrrr. Glad it’s done.

Love, Barb

Soon after, Death paid another visit.

Subject: Up and Exhausted

Date: Tue, 29 Oct 2002 23:56:27 -0800

Dear Mary,

This is the first quiet moment I have had all day. It is 10:57 p.m. Shirley just left. I’ll come to why in just a minute.

In this last week, I have just been beginning to feel like life might be half-way normal again. I had made arrangements to get the tractor picked up to have the lawnmower deck taken off and the snowblower put on with a tune-up done by JD Rental. I was having yearbook meetings. Then yesterday happened.

I had gone to the dentist that morning in Green Bay to have the root canal done. Lorraine brought me and when it was done, we mailed your package, went to Country Buffet for lunch, then to Sam’s for some shopping. I bought a few things, including a box of Mounds candy bars for Ray.6

After we got home at 4:15, I walked over to Ray and Shirley’s to give him the candy bars. He was delighted and commented how Skip and I would always bring him candy bars from Sam’s. He asked how much I owed him. I said nothing. He said you can’t keep doing that. I said yes I can.

In talking, I found out that Shirley needed to go to Menard’s to get some tar for their roof as it was leaking. I offered to take her. Ray wanted me to stay and eat pasties7 with them. I declined. When we went to Menard’s, Shirley told me Ray insisted I get some of that pastie and wanted me to come in and get some when we got back from Menard’s. We talked on the way there about how Ray was getting upset with Shirley raking leaves and said he would have to get back in his wheelchair and follow her around to keep her out of trouble. When we got home, Shirley told me I might as well come in and get some pastie because if I didn’t Ray was going to make her run over to my house with some. I went in and again made small talk with Ray. I went home.

About 8:30, I was talking to Judy on the phone and Kay called. I have call waiting. I interrupted Judy’s call to find Kay asking what was going on in the neighborhood: an ambulance had just been dispatched to Jacobson Street.8 I told her and Judy I would call them back and rushed out the front door. It was at Ray’s house. I rushed in the open door to find Shirley frantic, Randy crying, and Ray passed out on the bathroom floor. Shirley said, “He’s not breathing, I know what this is.” Ray was turning blue already. I called Ray’s sister Jerri and her husband Fritz, and his brother Donnie and wife Sue, to get them there as quickly as possible. Another neighbor was there trying to help too. We called her daughter Sandy, and soon Shirley had family around her. They headed off to the hospital, we neighbors waited in case Sandy showed up and promised to turn out lights and lock up when she was located.

Having done that, it was go home and wait. I called back Kay, Judy, then called Brian and Lorraine. Brian came over and we talked and waited. I left my porch light on so Shirley would know I was still awake. When I called Judy back, she said she had heard on the scanner that they had an irregular heartbeat, then a few moments later lost it and said they were starting CPR. It was his heart, not his lungs. He had a heart attack just like Skip. Ray had just mentioned earlier that Skip was lucky that he went so quickly and didn’t have to linger in a hospital bed for weeks with needles stuck in him and tubes hanging out of him. Shirley called at 11:30 to let me know Ray had died. She said she held his hand and said goodbye to him like I did with Skip.

I didn’t sleep well last night and was already exhausted from the day’s physical and emotional stress. When I went to school this morning, I felt tender and on the edge. I managed to tell my principal what had happened with just some quivering in my voice. Then Kay W., another teacher, came up all cheery and asked how I was today. I burst into tears. Some hugs and a short quiet time got me back together again and I managed to make it through the rest of the day. I explained it briefly to my classes and felt like I was in a fog all day.

After a yearbook meeting I had already scheduled, I rush home to find JD Rental already there, Brian showing up to help get that done, then staying to work on some bugs in this computer. He left and Lorraine came over with muffins, raisin bread, turkey, ham, and rolls to give to Shirley. We visited Shirley and she asked if I would help her do some picture boards9 for Ray like I did for Skip. I told her sure. I then went to Office Max to get the supplies. Just when I got back home, Bruce was there. Shirley came over and we began. Shirley just left and we got one board done. Two more to go. She had left some pictures and I have been running them off while I have been writing to you. We will build the other two tomorrow night.

The funeral will be Friday from 4-6 visitation and 6-6:30 service. I am glad it is on Friday so I have the weekend to settle back down again. Upset and reliving all of the emotions again? Yes. It is hard not to. I have to try and be strong for Shirley this time. Friday is going to be very difficult.

I am glad you liked the cookies. I sent you 74 and kept a few back for me. That was a triple batch. When I gave one to Lorraine, Cody and A.J. tonight, Lorraine said to A.J., grandma makes cookies better than Mom’s, hey A.J.? He nodded his head as he munched. Lorraine said, “This is where you say, “Oh no Mom. Yours are the best cookies.” A.J. just grinned.

Hanging in there because I have to. Will write again soon. Always love hearing from you. Take care.

Love, Barb


1Including a video of a Jeff Daniels movie called “Escanaba in Da Moonlight,” which was filmed in the U.P. some miles north of Menominee. The accents of the characters are the U.P. equivalent of the Minnesota accents in “Fargo.”

2Needless to say, I got to the cookies right away!

3A gray stone kitty. She means the big skeleton that sits behind the desk in my living room, not little “Skelly,” the Michigan native who arrived by snail mail a few months ago.

4An Erector set from 1949! I’d always wanted one but always got girly-girl presents instead. Both Kay and Barb have been looking for years for a yellow dome-top lunchbox like the one I’m holding in one of the few pictures of me with my dad. (Yes, so the Boomers are into reclaiming their childhood. Wait till you get here, my young friends.)

5Barb explained later: “Don’t know if I ever answered your question about what we had to do to get the park ready for winter. Take down the patio lights, take down the signs and swing, unchain the picnic tables and lean them up against the wood piles to keep snow off them, take down the wind chimes and smaller bird feeders. Bring up the kerosene and lamps. Take in the statues.”

6Ray was Skip’s best friend.

7A folded (calzone-like) meat and vegetable pie, a U.P. specialty. That I can’t stand. They have rutabagas.

8They all have police scanners and keep track of everything that’s going on. I can hear the sirens of fire trucks a couple blocks away, and unless they roar up and park right outside my condo, I don’t even glance out the window.

9A new(?) custom at funerals; boards placed near the coffin showing a variety of photographs from the deceased person’s life.


When I wrote Barb for permission to quote some of her e-mails (slightly edited) in the ‘zine, I had to explain to her what the ‘zine was. She was intrigued.

Subject: Sure go ahead. Sounds interesting.

Date: Sat, 16 Nov 2002 23:27:38 -0600

… As far as your Mary’zine, I don’t mind at all. It’s nice to be a part of your life again. So here is an interesting incident I haven’t told you yet about the cookie package…. After the dentist that day in Green Bay, I went into Mail Boxes Etc. where they had a Fed Ex sign in the window. As bold as brass, I went in, put the package on the counter and said, “This absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” The guy behind the counter hands me 2 forms and tells me to fill them out. In doing so, I also had to declare the value of the package. I won’t discuss the price of the other gifts, but I figured I had about $10 in cookie dough. He went to the computer, punched in some information, and said, “You absolutely, positively want it there over night?” “Yes,” I said affirmatively. “OK, it will be there at 10:30 tomorrow morning guaranteed.” “Terrific,” I proclaim. “That will be $107.” I bit my lip, paid the man, said thank you, and walked out. My jaw and Lorraine’s too dropped when I got in her Jeep and told her about it. I guess when you walk in bold as brass, you better have the cahunas to back it up. Did your mouth just drop open? I am so glad you enjoyed those cookies so much. That made it all worthwhile.


I also sent Barb a copy of my Eminem rhyme, and she responded in kind:

Real cool and insightful too.

Enjoyed your rap and that aint no flap.

M is straight up with K and B,

One consciousness livin’ as three.

So now she’s rappin’ all the time, I ain’t lyin’:

Well it’s 12:49 and its getting late,

So I’ll leave this note and accentuate

That you’re our big sis, you will always be.

We love you much, that’s from K and me.

Barb is the designated family e-mailer and reads highlights from all my e’s to Kay—including the long Eminem rap. (I would love to have heard that.) Kay wonders if the ‘zine will make me famous… like Paul Harvey (conservative radio commentator, insanely popular in the Midwest, whose signature closing is “Good…………day?”). I don’t know if I’ll ever reach those dizzying heights of celebrity, but it’s good to know my own family supports me with alacrity.

(I feel like I’m showin’ pictures of my family tree and you’re trapped in here with me, oohin’ and ahhin’ ever so polite-ly.)


I am trying to get a grip here.


Of course, having told my sisters about the ‘zine, the next step was to let them read it. This made me nervous, because I’ve never thought of my family as part of my audience. For a while, I thought, why rock the boat? We get along great now; why reveal things that might divide us further? I didn’t want to put something in motion that would—not to put too fine a point on it—come around and bite me in the ass. I finally realized I was being patronizing, as if they were too Midwestern or just too long out of touch with me (or I with them) to follow my verbal flights of fancy.

So I finally sent them most of the back issues, figuring they can pick their way through them like a box of assorted chocolates, reading what interests them and leaving the ones that are too nutty. However, I held back #24, about my trip back there for the funeral, first because I thought it might be too soon for Barb to read about it, and second because I was afraid that, having written it for people who don’t know them, I might have been too facile in my storytelling. When you’re a writer, you use (and abuse) whatever material you have, for your own vile and humorous purposes. Complex people become characters, to be twisted this way and that, readily sacrificed for a laugh. So I call my dead brother-in-law a tranny wannabe. Way to be sensitive. Sometimes I think I should have my poetic license taken away for reckless writing.

But I guess I can’t protect my family from who I am. I’m committed to following through and opening up my (California) life(style), via the ‘zine, to the people who have known me the longest. I have kept the CA and MI parts of my life compartmentalized for so long that it’s a little daunting to think that I can be (and write like) one person and not be shielding the Left Coast from the Midwest parts and the Midwest from my oh-so-privileged-yupscale life. But when I was back there, I felt I could be completely myself—it wasn’t as if I had to turn off my brain and settle in with the home folks and talk only about the rain.

Gee, could it be true? I’ve always thought I had to be, not all I could be, but whichever part of me would be acceptable to whomever I was with—dole myself out in truncated form, keeping the rest of me on a need-to-know basis. A “spiritual” person with my “spiritual” friends, a middle-class professional with my middle-class friends, a down-to-earth no-pretense McDonald’s-going troll with my working-class friends and family. The question is, can I be ME, one consciousness livin’ as THREE or more? I underestimate people in all those categories—mostly by putting them in categories to begin with. J said I could be a bridge between the various worlds I live in. And here I’ve been thinking I was just the troll under the bridge, hardly daring to show my true face. When I was writing to Barb one day, I compared myself to an ostrich sticking its head in the sand. She wrote back to inform me that (“scientific fact”) there was no such thing. So I looked it up, and sure enough,

To escape detection, ostriches may lie on the ground with neck outstretched, a habit that may have given rise to the notion that they bury their head in the sand.

I still think that, metaphorically, the two images express pretty much the same thing. But now that my ostrich-related metaphor inventory has doubled, I can think of myself not only with “head in sand” but “lying on the ground with neck outstretched,” a useful posture, perhaps, both for “escaping detection” and for making a bridge between worlds—no toll, no troll, just a way to streeeeeetttttchh-a, you betcha.

boomer nation

Forty is the new twenty.

—Sheryl Crow, who must have just turned 40

Watch the Baby Boomers redefine the stages of life! If the nursing home is rockin’, don’t bother knockin’! Yes, my generation is accused of trying to remain young forever, of denying the realities of age and maturity and death, of competing with our offspring, if we have any, to be hipper and younger than them and thou. And there’s some truth to that. In some ways we had a very privileged youth at a very exciting time in history—especially those of us who were part of the antiwar movement, the counterculture, the underground press, and the beginnings of new, groundbreaking movements for women, gay people, and ethnic minorities. And then there’s the fact of our sheer numbers. So the media get to rag on us for being so plentiful, and no opportunity to make fun of us for getting old is ever passed up. It’s just plain old ageism, nothing new at all. And yes, I know… we didn’t trust anyone over 30 back in the day, and it’s coming back to haunt us. Wait till you see what your ghosts look like.

Middle age is when you stop criticizing the older generation and start criticizing the younger one.

—Lawrence J. Peter

So true.

But clearly, the trend of the eternally trendy is just beginning. If 40 is the new 20, I’m sure that 60 will be the new 30 for Generations X and Y—especially since they tend to be into healthful eating, bike riding, and tree hugging. (Kids today.) And with molecular regeneration of body parts on the horizon, future generations will be rockin’ far longer than we ever will.

According to Sheryl Crow’s math, I turned “28” this year. That’s getting up there—because, as we all know, there’s nothing worse than aging, or, as I like to think of it, continuing to live. You’d think that would be a good thing, but it’s a source of great shame, at least in our culture. If I and my peers, still crazy after all these years, could accomplish one last thing before our selfish dinosaur selves die out, it might be to convey the truth about being old vs. youthful. But I suspect it’s not useful. They’ll just have to find out for themselves that youth is great for some things but that getting older is the real blessing.

One sure thing about my generation’s march toward oblivion is that we’re all going to get mighty sick of the word “Boomer.” I got an ad in the mail from a hearing aid company that began its pitch, “HEY BOOMER!!” (I wanted to call them up and say, “My hearing may be bad, but I can READ JUST FINE”). I think the B word will have to be incorporated into the generic phrase for old people, just so we aren’t confused with “The Greatest Generation,” our suddenly sainted Depression-era parents. I always hated the term Seniors, unless you’re talking about high school students or underclassmen. But I’m guessing we’ll be referred to as some variation on Senior Baby Boomers—Baby Seniors—Senior Boomers—Senior Babies. Be the first on your block to coin the newest derogatory term for the elderly! But the Boom spanned a lot of years, from 1946 to 1964, so those of us who were the first products of the post-WWII unprotected-sex epidemic will have to be distinguished from our younger siblings as “Elder Baby Senior Boomers.” But since we’re not of Social Security age just yet, for now you can think of us as Junior Elder Baby Senior Boomers. (I knew I should have gone into marketing.)


So mostly I just ignore all this mass media nonsense and live my life, but it/they, the mass tedia, got to me the other day. I’m enjoying my newfound attraction to hip-hop, have bought a few CDs and started listening to Live105—so nice to hear some music with N-R-G instead of that ‘90s/’00s pap-pop-crap (crapopap—the next dance craze?). And then along comes Maureen Down [Freudian slip; DOWD], in the New York Times, to report that soccer moms across the nation are “surreptitiously smitten” with Eminem. They have to listen to his music in the car after dropping off their 11-year-old daughters, who are “repulsed” by him.

Frantic to be hip, eager to stay young, we are robbing our children of their toys. Like Mick Jagger, we want to deny the reality of time and be cool unto eternity. Eminem sings only about himself, which makes him a perfect boomers’ crooner.

Oh puh-lease! Honey, take your social analysis and your boomer crooner doom out of the room and slouch off to your own eternal-uncool tomb. Let people like what they want to. Sometimes a mid-life red convertible is just a cigar. You dig? She ends with this zinger:

He’ll have to be very smart and very wicked if he doesn’t want to hear himself in elevators.

Uh huh. And how do you think he got where he is? By being very smart and very wicked. He’s played American culture like a violin. Obviously, I don’t like everything he says, but he’s for real, and his verbal agility is awe-inspiring. If he’s the new Elvis, “ripping off the black man so he can get wealthy,” so be it. Elvis brought R&B into the mainstream, and Eminem is doing the same for hip-hop. (I think he’s generally regarded as the best. Here’s Charles Barkley: “You know it’s gone to hell when the best rapper out there is a white guy and the best golfer is a black guy.”) And his take on race relations is refreshing—a class-conscious view that doesn’t scapegoat working-class blacks, his natural allies. I wish he were more enlightened about women, but he’s all bitchin’ and ho-in’ like rap tradition demands. But I guess if he gave women as much respect as he gives black men, he’d lose all credibility. (Woman—still man’s natural enemy.) Maybe his street cred will turn his head around and let him come out with some real shockers, like women are people too, not just hos ‘n’ hookers. And wait till his daughter grows up and he sees the male-female thing from both sides now. Then let’s see who he calls a ho.

So analyze this, Maureen Dowdy. Say howdy. Do yer doody and don’t be so moody.


p.s. I heard from Barb this morning. She has

… now read ‘zines 1, 2, 3 and 4 and enjoyed them thoroughly. I wish to be included in future mailings.

Well, she hasn’t gotten to the “Mary’s porn” issue yet, but I’m somewhat assured that—gasp—she can handle reading both my deepest and most superficial thoughts.

So, as my horoscope says every few months, “you are on a collision with destiny.” Or maybe with the left and right sides of the bridge, to bring us full circle to the “local news you wouldn’t believe.” Whatever. Just picture me flat on the ground with my head outstretched, ostrich-like, trying to be all things to all people and wondering if—truly—the only way to get anywhere close to that is to be all things I already am.

No doubt. Peace out.

[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.

mary‘zine random redux: #32 May 2005

July 10, 2009

I’m killing time while the installer from Drees Electric is here wrestling with my new dishwasher and garbage disposal. Plenty of butt crack on display, but I avert my eyes. For the first half hour he was here, I assembled one of my new steel “retro shell back” lawn chairs. It felt oddly companionable, the two of us grunting over our respective tasks. When he came back up from the basement at one point, I was sitting in the chair, and he laughed. “You finished your project!” I felt so butch.

I got up at 7:00 (having gone to bed at 3:30) to be sure I was ready when the installer came. There were lots of cars outside, and I saw that the people across the street were having a garage sale. Around here, garage (aka rummage) sales start at the crack of dawn and end before lunch. The woman who lived there died recently, and the house has already been sold. I’m waiting on pins and needles to see who’s going to move in. I’m officially an old fuddy-duddy now, hoping for quiet neighbors with no children… or motorcycles…. or beat-up cars…. or Kid Rock records…. well, I’ll just have to wait and see. [Update: I’ve spotted a baby and a young blonde woman, and neither of them looks like a Kid Rock fan.]

My official status as an old fuddy duddy was conferred on me by a young woman at Curry’s IGA the other day. She’s checking out my groceries and wants to know, “Are you a senior citizen?” “NO—NOT YET!” I exclaim, all flustered. Then I think for a few seconds. “How old do you have to be?” “55.” “Oh, OK then, I guess I am” (mumble mumble).” I didn’t even check to see how much being old had saved me.

Spring has almost sprung, and a senior citizen’s fancy turns to thoughts of… “Hmmm, I won’t be able to use the garage as a second refrigerator much longer.”

The ice in the bay has finally melted, the snow has long since receded, and the birds are flinging themselves to and fro, filling the sky with their rich cacophony. The grass is growing, but the trees are just barely budding. I’m looking forward to longer days, open windows, and the sweet, earthy smell of spring (if they still have that). I’ve often thought that people who proclaim their love for “the seasons” are just making lemonade out of ice-cold lemons. But of course now that I’m walking a mile in their moccasins, I can understand the sense of antici….

pation. The snow melts, the brown lawn looks forward to new green growth, and suddenly the future’s so bright I have to wear shades.
(I’ll have to be patient, though. My sister Barb informed me that it snowed on her birthday one year—May 16.)

Our mild winter was a piece o’ cake for me—except for the icing on the cake, if you get my drift. I ended up buying “snow chains” for my boots but lost one of them in a snow bank the first time I wore them.

One of the things I love about being here is having kids in my life—though they’re more of a delicacy than a main course since I moved out of Barb’s house. That didn’t come out right. I don’t get to see them as much, is what I mean. I do get to hear all the stories. One day 9-year-old Summer, 5-year-old Sarina, and 50-year-old Grandma Barb were playing “airplane.” As the self-appointed flight attendant, Sarina asks Barb what she wants to eat. Barb says, “Bacon and eggs.” So Sarina goes off and comes back moments later with her “bacon and eggs.” Then she asks Summer what she wants to eat. Summer starts to say, “Bacon….” and Sarina cuts her off: “We’re all out of bacon.” The kid’s a quirky genius, I tell you what.

I may have mentioned this before, but I love watching the birds and the squirrels. I don’t know why people expend so much time and effort to keep squirrels from eating. This morning one of my regulars, whom I’ll call Hurly, came running through the yard and spooked a flock of blackbirds, who lifted up en masse into the branches of the nearest tree. This freaked Hurly out, and he plastered himself against the tree with his back to it. It reminded me of that Far Side cartoon where the deer is standing upright behind a tree as a hunter prowls around in the background. The deer is thinking, “What have I ever done to this guy? Think, think!” Hurly stayed there until the coast was clear and then went about foraging for sunflower seeds. Then a garbage truck drove by, and Hurly scrambled to the top of a nearby utility pole. I worried he would fry himself on the high voltage wires, but he just clung to the pole like a squirrel chameleon. When I looked again, he was gone.

One day I saw Hurly (or Burly, I can’t tell them apart) scrounging for seeds under the bird feeder. Then I looked about 10 feet over and saw a chickadee trying to get at the peanuts in the squirrel feeder. Hmmm…. Isn’t nature supposed to be smarter than that?

Now I glance out the window and see a big ol’ robin in the bird bath…. fluttering this, fluttering that, stopping to take a sip of bathwater now and then. I expect it to start washing under its “arms” like a Disney cartoon bird. I change the water in my two bird baths every day—that’s just the kind of nature lover I am. I take an absurd pride in attracting a large, diverse population of birds—robins, red-wing blackbirds, chickadees, bright yellow finches, blue jays, woodpeckers, mourning doves, and some I can’t identify. I’m even mildly offended when some of them start grazing in the neighbors’ yards. What have they got that I haven’t got?

Just this morning, I saw that a robin is building a nest on my back porch. I’m excited to be a birdparent-to-be.

The gulls can be a pain. They swoop down on the garbage bags that get put out every Friday (we’re not allowed to use cans) and can cover a wide swath of road and yard with orange peels, coffee grounds, and fluttering store receipts and sandwich wrappings. I don’t get mad, I get Glad. (That gives me an idea. Product placement in the mary‘zine? Have your people call my people.)

On the first day of daylight saving time, I became aware that the din from outside was deafening—the raucous cries and sweet melodies of large and small birds filling the sky. So I went outside and sat in the sunny chill, my jacket wrapped around me, trying to remain still so that the birds who had been flying in and out of the yard would forget I was there. I imagined them gathering in a tree across the street to assess the situation. “Have you noticed that big thing over by the fence? Has it always been there? Have you seen it move? I could have sworn it did. Could it be one of those lifelike sculptures by what’s-his-name, the artist who makes those “people” sitting on park benches? Oh heck, let’s go for it. I’m starving.”

Naturally, Pookie loves watching the birds as much as I do. His motives may be less pure, but he’s harmless. The few times I’ve let him outside, he spends most of his time under the back porch, sniffing the dirt for God knows what. And of course the birds, having the advantage of flight, make themselves scarce until we go back in the house.

Pookie seems to like his new home, but it’s hard to tell. He has the advantage of long-term, short-term, and middle-term memory loss so is not demonstrably grateful for having a permanent, spacious home after last summer’s uprootedness and cramped quarters. He has his own mysterious routines. He’ll be sleeping in the little sitting room downstairs when I come down to the kitchen to make something to eat. Within a minute or two, without fail, I’ll hear the click-click of his toenails as he plods across the kitchen floor toward the stairs, not even turning his head to look at me. Hi, Pookie! Bye, Pookie! The only time he seeks me out is after he’s done his toi-o-lette. If I’m sitting at my desk, he’ll come to me and insist on being picked up. If I ignore him, he’ll try to climb the desk chair, and the poignant urgency in his big green eyes makes him impossible to refuse. Unfortunately, his recent activities are evident in his wet nose, water dripping off his chin, stray bits of cat food in his whiskers, and some suspicious moistness down below. I haul him up onto my lap and try to continue working (or playing) while he proceeds to groom himself and either fall fast asleep, numbing my legs under his considerable weight, or toss and turn and dig his claws into my thighs, and gaze up at me accusingly, as if I should know what’s bothering him. At some unknown signal, he starts hoisting himself up for real and I know it’s time to put him down on the floor. I try to remember to say, “Want to get down?” rather than “Want me to put you down?” because you never know what they can understand.

Being as how I’m getting up there in age and might not be able to climb the stairs at some point, my sisters have pointed out that the staircase is wide enough that I could have a lift installed, like the one Tony Soprano’s mother creaked up and down on. Pookie is no spring chicken either, so I’m envisioning a smaller lift for him opposite mine. Then, when he hears me get in my lift and start moving down, he can hop into his lift and go up, ignoring me completely as we pass each other in our respective quasi-invalid apparati.

Speaking of getting old (do old people speak of anything else?), Barb and K and I reference the following joke often.

Three elderly sisters live together. One sister goes upstairs to draw herself a bath but calls down to say she doesn’t remember if she was getting into the tub or out of it. The second sister starts up to help her but realizes halfway up the stairs that she doesn’t remember if she was going up or coming down. The third sister scoffs at both of them. “I hope my memory never gets that bad,” she says, knocking on wood. “I’ll be right up as soon as I see who’s at the door.”

So when any of us has a “senior moment” (even though I’m the only one who gets money off for being old), we’ll say, “I have to see who’s at the door.”

I first heard that joke after Skip’s funeral when several of his old-guy relatives were sitting around Barb’s kitchen table. One of the guys was telling the joke, but I wasn’t paying attention—I was making myself a ham sandwich. (Food always trumps conversation.) When he got to the part where the third sister knocks on wood, he rapped sharply on the table. Hearing that, I went to the door to see who was there. I couldn’t understand why everyone howled at that. Life imitates art, I tell you what.

peaceable kingdom

So it’s been eight months since I moved back to my hometown, and almost exactly a year since P and I (and Pookie) set out from San Rafael to start this grand adventure. I have written about the wonderful discoveries, the synchronicities, the house falling into my lap in the nick of time, the three road trips, the settling in, the beauty of this very different but familiar landscape, the ritual eating of fried fish with my peeps every Friday, and the sense of being home in all possible meanings of the word. (However, I must get the obligatory food criticism off my chest. Dear Midwesterners: mixing macaroni with mayo, cheese, and bacon—even if you add broccoli and call it “broccoli salad”—IS NOT SALAD.) Now I sense that the next phase is beginning, and I don’t mean the birds and the green buds of spring. In some ways, the initial thrill—the delirious speculation about what this big change is going to mean—is gone. You just can’t sustain the sense of novelty, the inevitable illusion that your new life will be so different and so wonderful that you will become, basically, a different person. The illusion that a change of place equals a change of self is common, I suppose—all those Westward ho! pioneers, those back-to-the-land hippies, those frozen retirees relocating to Florida or Arizona…. Same for getting a new job, a new partner. Starting over—it’s the American illusion, I mean dream.

But illusion is a paper ship on a very deep ocean. When “the thrill is gone,” we think we’ve failed. Miscalculated. Been tricked. “That person I was so in love with has changed!” “I’m having the same problems here as I did back there!” We don’t have much social support for seeing what lies beyond the illusion of a new beginning. My favorite image of this is the women’s magazines’ fantasy of the housewife greeting her husband at the door naked, wrapped in Saran Wrap, hoping to put some spice back in their marriage. As if novelty—a continual rekindling of the illusion phase—is the only way to renew: a paper ship in a wading pool. But I think it’s not an accident that relationships begin with that honeymoon attraction that seems all-pervasive yet is only the barely scratched surface of real connection. Illusion is a way to get us moving in a direction we might otherwise not attempt. And once we’re at our destination—that ill-thought-out, happily-ever-after “ending”—that’s when the new seeds and weeds start to sprout.

Much of this insight is due to a dream work session I had by phone with Jeremy Taylor,  a teacher, counselor, and minister whose brilliance is surpassed only by his compassion. Two of the three dreams I told him had the theme of my being aware of something behind me that I wasn’t quite able to see. (Something unconscious this way comes.) In one of these dreams,

I’m sitting on a roof with my legs hanging over the side. Higher up on the roof lies a placid-looking tiger who looks like he stepped right out of one of Edward Hicks’s “The Peaceable Kingdom” paintings. But then I become aware that another tiger has come up behind me and is so close he could touch the back of my neck. I fear I will be eaten, or thrown over the side. But he doesn’t touch me.

To Jeremy, these images signify a new phase to come. He’s been right so many times in the past  that I have to believe there’s something to it. I don’t know what the new challenges, the next phase, will be about, but it seems unlikely that the ramifications of moving back to the place of my difficult childhood would be limited to the surface pleasures of carefree adulthood: the fish fry? the nice park? birds and squirrels in my yard?

I had another “can’t quite see what’s behind” dream the other night.

I’m in a painting class, and I have to keep asking the teacher (a man) to come look at my painting. Finally, he does, and he seems to approve. But he leaves before I can turn the painting over and show him the painting I did on the other side. I keep asking and asking, getting more and more depressed, but I wake up before he comes back.

I’m intrigued by all these dream-teases. I’m enjoying my peaceable kingdom—more about that later—but I’m curious to see what’s next.


What I’m trying to convey here is not that I’m dis-illusioned, or that “the honeymoon is over boo-hoo,” or that I’m sitting here with family but no friends wondering, “What was I thinking?” I’m trying to explore the fault line between imagining the future and then arriving there. Tomorrow inevitably feels different from today. Tomorrow = I’m going to paint a mural on the walls and ceilings of my attic “cave.” Today = I think I’ll play another game of Alchemy. I’m trying to be honest about the sometime mix of blessings in any new venture.

Recently I received an e-mail from A, an old painting (and dancing) friend. She had enjoyed the tale of my move and shared her own synchronistic trail that had taken her to Paris, where she now lives for a third of the year, does some teaching, and has lots of friends. She went on to say that her son graduated with a master’s degree in literature from Stanford and is in a touring rock band. Suddenly, my little adventure seemed tame indeed. I wrote her back, “…man oh man, you really put my little U.P. life to shame. Paris! A literate son in a rock band! I know we each have our own path, but STILL…”

For a brief moment it felt so unfair. Why does she get Paris, and I get a little town no one’s ever heard of? Well, I wouldn’t actually be suited to her life, and that’s the point, n’est-ce pas? But it was disconcerting to have that moment of raw envy, as if what’s right for me isn’t good enough if I spot something more alluring over there. But that’s illusion again, a siren song trying to distract me from the real. A few people have written to say how happy they are for me—and I believe them—but the word “envy” does come up sometimes. “I’m slightly envious of your relationship with your family,” etc. But wishing for someone else’s good fortune is meaningless. If only I were a people person! And could speak French! And liked to travel! It’s a good reminder to see that fantasizing about someone else’s life—based on assumptions and wishful thinking—is different from actually living that life—as is fantasizing about your own. But at least with your own, you’re proceeding on your own path, clearing the brush in real time. “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone; I can see obstacles in my way….”

By moving here I escaped from certain aspects of my life in the Bay Area—the crime and noise in my neighborhood, most notably—just as I escaped from Menominee a long time ago. And now here I am again. Which is the frying pan, and which is the fire? So far, being here is more like being in the top half of a double boiler… warmly melting into chocolate. Mmmmm….. chocolate. Once again, I’ll just have to wait and see.

When I was staying with Barb last summer, I marveled at my heretofore unknown adaptability. I actually liked people dropping by and kids poking me with questions. I liked the sense of being ready for anything—working on a dining room table amid layers of clutter, with a TV on in the background… sleeping in a room without a door… not able to cook and barely able to find space to make a sandwich in a kitchen in which every surface, including much of the floor, was piled high with stuff—some in transit, some seemingly in permanent residence. In certain respects, my sisters and I are sharply divided between the “Larsen side” and the “McKenney side.” Barb and I resemble each other in looks, but K looks more like our McKenney aunts. And Barb and I do not have the gene that would cause us discomfort if we noticed that the juice box and half-eaten cookie that one of the kids left on the fireplace ledge three days ago was still there.

Conversely, sister K, as a teenager, vacuumed out the coal bin in the basement with Mom’s good vacuum cleaner. Neat freak from day 1. I’m just sayin’.

One day Barb asked her son Brian to haul away an old recliner, because she had bought a new one. He moved it out to the kitchen and said he’d take it to the dump “this weekend” (it was Monday). The recliner sat there in the dead center of the kitchen floor for the rest of the week, and we not only lived around it, we made it into an “art space”: One day I propped a frog planter (a planter in the shape of a frog, not a planter in which to plant frogs) in the chair, put sunglasses on it, and stuck a small American flag in the crook of its elbow. Barb picked up on the game immediately, and we had fun with it all week. One night before we went out, I noticed a full bottle of Zima in the hands of the frog, and I duly chuckled as I went out the door. When we got back, the bottle was empty. (Barb had switched them at the last minute, ho ho.) When Brian saw this strange tableau, he said simply, “I don’t get it.” But here’s what’s strange. Brian took the chair away on Saturday, and when Barb and I got home that night, we walked in the back door right into the kitchen, put our bags and purses down, and didn’t notice that the chair was gone. Being oblivious to one’s surroundings has its advantages.

Anyway…. while I was thinking that I had changed, because I enjoyed the people interruptions and was able to handle the household chaos, it really only meant that I had learned to cope and adapt—which is no small thing, but not the same as “Now I want people around me all the time so I can go with the freakin’ flow.” So when the movers arrived from California and I was able to physically move into my house, it was as if I was letting out a breath I’d been holding for months. I had done it. I was here. My life was my own. And when Barb called a couple days later, waking me up from a nap and wondering if she should come over right after school so we could go out for an early supper, I snapped. Like a twig. NOW THAT I HAVE MY OWN SPACE I NEED TO BE ALONE FOR A WHILE, I announced. I was probably as shocked as she was at this sudden reversal. I had been keeping it together, and I was now in a state of collapse—mental and physical exhaustion. In addition to unpacking and getting my rooms arranged and making to-do lists as long as my arm, I had to reorient myself, mentally incorporate the rest of my being into this new situation. All last summer I had been visiting—on a vacation doubling as a fact-finding tour, a trial living situation. At Barb’s I had been a guest. I did my best to fit into her schedule, but it wasn’t my schedule. I had brought part of my life with me, but most of it was still back in the Bay Area. I was dealing. It wasn’t real.

When I was finally here, safe within my own four (×10) walls, I could no longer be a houseguest in Barb’s life. I had to start erecting movable fences, establishing boundaries. Call before you come over! No, don’t call, I could be napping! Clearly, I’m not the only one who has had to adjust. Barb is a people person. I, on the other hand, can barely deal with one snooty cat. We’re working it out…. but there’s more….

on the fault line

Jerry Falwell is in the hospital. His condition has been upgraded from “critical” to “judgmental.”
—joke heard on the radio

Barb and I are apples that fell off the same tree, and not very far from it. Mom could be both tactlessly critical and punishingly silent. Unsurprisingly, some of that has rubbed off on us. The main difference is that I can talk to Barb about it and get a considered response from her rather than anger or the silent treatment.  (In therapy a few years ago, I was pissed at J one day and wouldn’t talk about it. I started to leave without saying good-bye—that would show her! J said, “Why don’t you just be angry at me? It would be less hurtful.” I replied, “This is anger where I come from.” I have to commend J for sticking by me through 12 years of that kind of thing.)

When I first moved here, I announced that I would try to refrain from correcting anyone’s English. (I like to think of myself as hugely tolerant. Where I got that idea, I don’t know.) But of course I couldn’t stick with my good intentions. I’m shocked by some of the accepted usage around here: “Me and my girlfriend went shopping.” “Him and her don’t get along.” “Do youse know what you want to order?” So, yes, I admit it…. I’ve been known to offer an alternative pronunciation or word choice now and then. I always think that the valuable information I’m imparting makes up for any temporary offense I might cause. Yeah, right. My sad excuse is that I’m critical for a living. (I’m judgmental on my own time.)

For her part, Barb does not always notice that she’s treating her perfectly capable adult sisters like the 7th graders she has to deal with all day long. With her teacher voice and sense of God-given authority, she’s a force to be reckoned with. She takes me to Menard’s in her truck to buy a ladder, because it won’t fit in the Jeep. As I haul the ladder first through the parking lot and later into my garage, she can’t resist telling me, oh, four or five times, the right way to carry it. As with her students, she thinks she has to keep repeating an instruction until the person “gets it right.” And like me, she doesn’t always question whether her help is needed or appreciated.

K, on the other hand, is so afraid of hurting anyone’s feelings that she tries to keep the peace at all costs. Here’s a trivial example. We all keep each other’s favorite soft drinks on hand. It’s almost ritualistic. You walk into someone’s house, and the first order of business is, “Want something to drink?” For years, Barb thought that K liked Dr. Pepper, but I found out that she preferred Coke. She had never said anything to Barb because Barb never had Coke in the house. But Barb was specifically buying Dr. Pepper because that’s what K would drink when she was over there. It’s a little bit like “Gift of the Magi,” don’t you think? OK, not so much. But K is such a sweetheart that it’s hard to know what’s really going on with her. With Barb and me, our faces tell the story even if our words don’t.

We all enjoy telling our respective horror stories about Mom’s insensitivity, but it’s harder to see what we ourselves have internalized or are reacting to. The good news is that we have an opportunity to become more emotionally real with each other—to the extent that we each want to, of course—a lesson Mom was not able to teach us.

in the mix

While anticipating the unknown future hinted at in my dreams, I’m enjoying the heck out of my peaceable kingdom, my old people’s neighborhood, my huge house (just right for one person and her catty companion), the physical safety I’ve never felt in a sustained way before, the leisure of being semi-retired (I work when work is sent to me, but I no longer go looking for it), the long quiet nights when I read, play Alchemy on the computer, listen to “Loveline” from a radio station in Seattle, or pull matted clumps of hair out of Pookie’s back. But when the spirit moves, I can also bust out the jams in my jammies… turn up the speakers and dance to the delirious, pounding music of the Chemical Brothers at 2:30 a.m. in my blue-and-green-lit loft.

Now that I can afford high-speed Internet, a monthly subscription to, and 99 cent songs from iTunes, I am hugely enjoying my media palace. I am tuned in and turned on to a degree I never knew before. I’ve discovered whole genres of music—some with no label other than “alternative” (to what?)—more than 400 songs on my laptop and easy transfer of music and books to an iPod shuffle or an Otis media player. I started building my electronic library with favorite artists from my college days—Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Four Tops, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Mimi and Richard Farina, Tim Hardin)—the familiar and comforting tunes of my youth. But then I branched out musically in all directions, thanks to iTunes, (free downloads), KCRW (musically eclectic public radio station in Santa Monica—I’m now supporting three public radio stations: two in California, one in Wisconsin) and other sources, and now I have a musical accompaniment to any mood. I’ve discovered Thievery Corporation, Bloc Party, French Kicks, Gang Gang Dance, Supreme Beings of Leisure (hey, that’s me!), Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and Shivaree, to name but a few.

Somehow I got turned on to and discovered endless subgenres of dance music: Deep, House, Sexy, Funky, Chunky, Jazzy, Techy, Tech, Techno, Tribal, Tech Step, Hard Step, Deep Tech, Neuro Funky, Deep House, Acid House, Chunky House, Funky House, Chunky Tribal, Tribal Techno, Tribal Tech House, Funky Deep House, Electro House, [inhale!] Electro Tech House, Progressive, Progressive House, Progressive Tech House, Progressive Breaks, Techy Progressive House, Deep Ethereal Progressive, Deep Progressive Trance, Peak Hour Progressive House, Rockin’ Teck-Step, Hardsteppin’ Bounce, Smoothed-Out Teck-Steppin’ Funk, Funky Peak Hour Beats, and the ever-popular Liquidly Funkin’ Drum & Bass Beats.

I swear I did not make any of those names up.

I had heard a song (oh excuse me, a track) by “DJ T” (remix by “Random Factor”) (I have no idea who these people are, assuming they are people) that I liked. I didn’t realize until after I’d ordered the “album” that I didn’t know exactly what I was getting—CD? LP? MP3? ABC? 1-2-3? you and me? I had become accustomed to downloading—acquiring substance/essence without the bother of storing a physical object. But what arrived was a record in a plain black cover sleeve. Then I realized, oh yeah—that deep chunky funky stuff is played in clubs by hip-hop DJs. Here I was, a civilian—and a “senior” one at that—buying the beats beloved of large crowds of stoned-out youth. I liked the thought of the Bay Area hipsters at seeing the address on my order and speculating, “D’ya suppose there’s a happening turntablist scene in—what’s the name of that place?—Menominee?”

I suppose “senior citizens” through the ages have resented the assumptions made about them by the young-who-believe-it-will-never-happen-to-them. But it seems worse now, since my generation is the first to have the luxury of indulging our youthful interests far into our dotage. Many of us, of course, are still getting stoned and listening to Crosby Stills Nash Young and Increasingly Decrepit. But I got tired of the ‘60s music scene decades ago and prefer the punk and new wave of the early ‘80s and, more recently, electronica, hip-hop, and “alternative” (Iron and Wine, Milosh, Nick Drake, the whole “Garden State” soundtrack—good movie, by the way).

One of the sad things for me about leaving the Bay Area was losing the ability to listen to the Saturday night marathon on Live105 known as Subsonic—all electronic and hip-hop and mash-ups and remixes until 4 a.m. One Saturday night before I left, I called the Subsonic DJ to find out the name of a song I had just heard (“Callin’ Out” by Lyrics Born). Impulsively—feeling all girlish and shy—I told him that I loved the show. On further, ill-considered impulse, I told him I was 57. His reaction was predictably condescending. “Oh, so you’re one of those ‘rockin’ grandmas’!” Uh, well, I suppose—I’ve never reproduced, but yes I am of that older generation. But “rockin’ grandma”? Is it possible for me to feel any less like a rockin’ grandma? Subsonic’s producer, another child, was also on the line, and he pipes up, “We don’t care who listens!” Then the DJ says, “I hope I still dig new music when I’m 57!” (thinking to himself, “I’ll never get out of my 20s alive”).

And yet, how can I be offended when I was known, back in the day, to utter the cliché, “Don’t trust anyone over 30”? It’s laughable now (my godchild is 30), but I understand the impulse to reject the old folks, the so-not-with-it, the irrelevant—move along to your ice floe, gram and gramps, it’s our turn now, we scoff at your moldy oldies, we resent your great booming numbers while we’re stuck with single-letter generational names… X, Y… Z? and then what? the alphabet and the world both come to an end?

Part of what you do in the illusion phase of a life change is to think that every little thing that happens is significant. Because the events leading to my move had been so dramatic while seeming precariously coincidental, I started expecting that every ripple from a stone thrown in my little pond was going to lead to something big. Sometimes the stone just plops down, no discernable ripples at all.

I’ll give you a few examples. One night last fall, after the peeps’ weekly fish fry, I stopped at Angeli’s on the way home to pick up some groceries. I was wearing my Cody’s Bookstore (Berkeley) t-shirt. As I was leaving, a man came up to me and said, “If you’ve been to that bookstore, what are you doing here?” So I explained that I had recently moved back from the Bay Area, and we stood in the parking lot and talked for several minutes—of course I had to ask what he was doing here, too. Turns out he’s a playwright and theatre director at the UW-Marinette campus. He had interviewed at Sonoma State but eventually wound up here. It was from his time at Sonoma State that he “recognized” me (i.e., my type) from the “t-shirt and the haircut” (code for Big Dyke).

I asked him where the nearest bookstore was, and he said, “Madison.” I thought he was joking—Madison is 150 miles away—but apparently not. He said he had gone to an estate sale just that morning that had an unusually large collection of books. He told me where it was, we said good night, and that was that.

The next morning I went over to the estate sale and there were indeed lots of books. I called Barb and she came over, too. We started talking to the two sisters who were clearing out their father’s house after his death. One was a lawyer and the other was a psychiatrist. I said to the shrink, “Oh, I’m looking for a psychiatrist who specializes in psychopharmacological management [to prescribe my Zoloft].” She says, “That’s what I do!” Perfect! She gave me her card, which announced that the focus of her practice was on women and children. Was this synchronicity or what? The only problem was that she was based in Racine, which is even farther than Madison. But she said she was thinking about coming up to Marinette to see patients a couple days a week. The four of us chatted away, all mutually intrigued by each other’s professions and getting along famously.

I bought an armload of books, Barb bought an armload of books plus some chests of drawers, and the lawyer promised to have another grouping of books ready for next week’s sale; she said she would save any old Hardy Boys’ books she found for me. The following Saturday we showed up for the second installment of the estate sale. The lawyer met us at the door and said they hadn’t had a chance to get the books sorted. Barb picked up the chests she had bought, and the lawyer promised to call one of us when they were ready to sell more things. We never heard from her. I tried to find the psychiatrist in Racine, but she had moved from the address on her business card.

It’s not as if we had been deliberately misled. Things happen. These were ordinary interactions, pumped up by my insistence on thinking “everything happens for a reason.” Those linked episodes with the playwright, the lawyer, and the psychiatrist (they sound like characters in a play by Sartre—or a joke about 3 people walking into a bar) were apparently self-contained, a pool of possibilities that, for whatever reason, never turned into a stream or a rippling pond. (I have since found a psychiatrist—in Oshkosh, 100 miles away. Fortunately, I like him.)

Similarly, my supposed burgeoning friendships with the bank manager and the city tax assessor—both smart, engaging women—never came to pass. The tax assessor never called me back after I contacted her a couple times, even going to the extent of sending her the issue of the ‘zine that included my story of meeting her. I’ve noticed that people can get really weird about what’s said about them in print, so maybe it was horribly inappropriate of me to identify her by name blah blah blah.

I did have lunch with the bank manager, but it was soon obvious that we weren’t on the same page, friendshipwise, despite having had some interesting conversations and lots of laughs in her office. It seemed more like a customer service gesture on her part—the bank paid for lunch. (Yes, that would be the first clue.) I gave her a copy of that same ‘zine. When I asked her later what she thought, she said my writing was “interesting.” End of story. So what did I expect? I expect the universe to present its sunny face to me at all times, why do you ask?

Years ago, when I had chronic back pain after my mother died, I found a wonderful chiropractor/healer and, through her, my therapist J, after a series of “coincidences”—recommendations acted upon or not, scheduled and canceled appointments, and a frosty-sounding psychologist who was too busy to see me. Looking back, it all seems “meant to be.” That’s fine for looking back, but I always want to know, what do I do now? Life’s combination of “lack of ultimate control” and “necessity to act despite that fact” is frustrating, if not downright diabolical.

Here I am, already over my usual page limit, and I haven’t described the most jarring note in my hometown hit parade. Read on.

Back in the #15 issue of the mary’zine, I wrote about desire, illusion, intimacy, and passion. One of my examples of illusion was BA, a friend from 5th grade through junior high. She never went to college, never got married, doesn’t even drive. She’s not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. The only time I’d seen her as an adult was at my mother’s wake, when I wondered why she hovered around me way past the usual two-minute paying of respects. To me, we had grown apart even before high school. So why did she keep bugging my sisters to get me to come home for high school and grade school reunions? After one of the reunions, she sent me pictures of the aging ex-fifth graders and our fossilized teacher in a greeting card with a teabag enclosed, saying she “missed” me. I never responded. Besides feeling no personal attraction to her, I saw her as the embodiment of everything I had left town to escape. I’ve always been afraid of getting sucked back into poverty, as if my pretence of middle-class living would turn out to be a temporary reprieve and I would wake up like a Cinderella who’s only dreamed she went to the ball. So BA was kind of my doppelganger—the alter ego of my underprivileged, small-town self, my “there but for the grace of God went I” if I hadn’t gotten scholarships to college.

BA was much on my mind as I made plans to move back here. This town wasn’t going to be big enough for the both of us! It’s relatively easy to reject a would-be suitor, but how do you tell someone you don’t want to be their friend? I had hoped to escape detection for as long as possible, but before I even got here, BA had heard about my move from my aunt, who works with K. BA tried to confirm the rumor by calling up my bro-in-law MP: “I heard Mary’s moving back here, is that true?” “News to me,” says MP with a straight face. Then one day K runs smack into her at Angeli’s supermarket, and BA again asks if the news is true—K admits it is—and in that case, “Where is she living?” My loyal-to-the-end sister says, “I’m afraid I can’t tell you that.” She explains that I’m “lying low,” am “kind of a hermit.” BA acknowledges that “after all those years in California, it’s understandable”—whatever that means.

So time goes by, and the new phone book comes out but too soon to have my name and number in it. Then the inevitable happens. I walk into Stephenson’s Bakery (which shares a small building with the Michigan DMV; there are lots of odd pairings like that around here), and there she is, talking to the counter person. As Barbara Havers—a working class detective in Elizabeth George’s novels—would say, “Sod bloody all on a toasted tea cake.”

As she turns to see who came in, I have that panicky moment of thinking it’s not too late to turn around and run out. Instead, I say, “B—?” “Yeah.” “Mary.” She is flabbergasted and thrilled. We sit down at a table to talk because I can’t bring myself to make an excuse to leave. She comments that I “don’t look that different” except for “putting on a few pounds.” (Thanks! I hadn’t noticed!) She speculates that I must live nearby. She’s still trying to ferret out my home base. I finally tell her, “I live out on M-35”—which, believe me, covers a lot of territory.

Then she launches the boat of conversation into Lake Memory. She reminds me that I was editor of the school paper in 5th grade. She still has a copy; do I want to see it? (Part of me is sorely tempted. Is this how Jesus felt with Satan in the wilderness?) BA rattles off several other facts, events, and conversations. But I don’t remember even one of the memories she is excitedly recounting. It’s truly a lesson in “eye of the beholder.” To me, she was a minor player in my life from ages 10 to 13 or so. To her, I was apparently some kind of touchstone. She keeps saying, “I’m just glad to know you’re really real!” In our dream work session, Jeremy suggested that she’s a lesbian who has been in love with me since the 5th grade. [insert “Jaws” music here] She clearly thinks synchronicity is working for her in this situation—that I’ve come back into her life for a reason.

After our excursion through the lake of stagnant memories, I offer her a ride home. Why? I don’t know. I think I’m a little intrigued in spite of myself. The old asphalt-shingled, hardly-any-windowed house she rents the bottom of looks like a contemporary of the shack of a house she lived in with her family across from the grade school. I think about my big, beautiful house by the water and the park. Damn, why do I feel so guilty?

She rattles on about how the house used to belong to a classmate who was a football star. Two other classmates I would never think of as an item—one of them is distantly related to me—live down the street. My aunt—who, in one of life’s little ironies, gave me the brushoff when I asked for her e-mail address—lives right around the corner. As BA gets out of the Jeep, I tell her I’ll call her sometime. It feels like a mistake as soon as I say the words. But what else could I say: “Have a nice life”? (Am I being the architect of my own downfall here?)

I know I’m not responsible for BA’s being born into an extremely poor family, without the resources (or the smarts or the will) to go to college or to make friends easily. Back in junior high, I clung to any other girl who was willing to hang out with me. She did too. And then I went and changed, moved on, found people to love and be loved by, and situations where I could thrive. And yet—if my high school English teacher Ruth ever moved back here, I would be delirious with hope and expectation. I don’t like to think about that. I’m different. I’ve seen the world. I don’t have to cling to childhood relationships. Do I?

A few days later, BA is walking by the middle school and sees Barb coming out. She yells to Barb to wait up and then tells her about seeing me. Here’s her assessment of our little chat in the bakery: “I think she’s lost and is searching for her childhood.”


Barb reminds her that I have my own business and that I edit scientific manuscripts from all over the world.

BA says, “Yeah, she mentioned that.”

Then she tells Barb I gave her a ride home: “I’m not from California—I don’t care who sees where I live.” She adds, hopefully: “She said she’d call.”

So what now? I’ll just have to wait and see what’s on the other side of my painting, what the tiger at my back has in mind, and whether BA—strange link between my then and my now—is successful at finding me and either convinces me to attend the next school reunion or murders me in my bed. Life is a mystery.

Au revoir.

[Mary McKenney]

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