Posts Tagged ‘self’

mary’zine #73: June 2015

June 10, 2015

I haven’t been here (before your eyes) in a long time, but I’ve been here (in the ether) all along, my mind swirling—or, not as fluid as that, more like straining, stumbling, stuttering—with so many things I could write about if I were coherent but not feeling coherent in the least.

e x … c a v a t e  good times, come on!

(think Kool and the Gang)

The metaphor I was straining at involved a thing in the real world—the Kola Superdeep Borehole, the deepest hole in the earth, drilled by Soviet scientists off and on from 1970 to 1994, that goes 7.5 miles down into the earth’s crust. In contrast, the center of the earth is estimated to be nearly 4,000 miles down, so… nice try, boys; close but no cigar. At 7.5 miles they were forced to quit drilling because of unexpectedly high temperatures (356°F) and a nougat-like center (I’m imagining), where the porous and permeable rock behaved “more like a plastic than a solid.” The hole, only 9 inches in diameter, is under this rusted metal cap on the Kola Peninsula of Russia (Fig. 1).


 Fig. 1. Beginning of really deep hole.

So, the strained metaphor was my felt need to excavate the depths of my own crusty shell, hoping to find the deep inner mantle where the past and present coexist, if not collide. (My newspaper horoscope has always used phrases like “fantasy collides with destiny.”) And if past and present are down there, then future must be down there, too—in the sense of a seed, which by definition embodies its destiny: The acorn can only grow into its future self, an oak tree.


I don’t know about destiny, but I’ve fantasized plenty in my life. I liked some science fiction as a child, but I wasn’t that interested in aliens or distant planets. But Journey to the Center of the Earth resonated with me for some reason. For someone who wasn’t that interested in outer space, I was blown away by the idea that the Verne adventurers encountered sky down there. If only I had known the phrase “blew my mind” back then, I would have had many occasions to use it. I was only 10 years old, but still. Sometimes I think I thought more about infinity and death and other unknowns between the ages of 6 and 10 than I have since. Childhood is deep, which most adults forget. It looks so simple, even primitive. Cry, sleep, shit, eat, you’re like a tiny predictable entity—a clean slate—that hasn’t yet been filled with the detritus from interaction with the outside world. But the inside! The inside is full of feeling and thought, regardless of whether anyone takes you seriously or not. I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid who had big things on her mind, or maybe it was the extreme encounters I had with death and illness that made me a little philosopher, maybe a wannabe nihilist. Life didn’t look that good to me when my brother was buried under the ground and my father was ensconced in a VA hospital with MS, only to return home so changed that I didn’t recognize him. For the longest time I thought, “What’s next?” Who will die or leave me next? How will I make my way in the world? In high school I was convinced there would be no end to the misery. Every day, every week brought a challenge, sometimes new, sometimes a dreaded repetition. If it wasn’t a single event—an oral book report, a debate, a dentist appointment, a babysitting job, a piano lesson, an unasked-for and oft-rebelled-against hair perm—it was the daily curse of car sickness, pimples, awkward social encounters, acute self-consciousness, fear of being diagnosed with mental illness, and a mortifying awareness of how poor we were. I couldn’t escape any of it. Without a sane adult to explain to you that everyone goes through this kind of thing, it’s only in hindsight that you realize you were not the only one. I remember having a meeting with my high school guidance counselor, Mr. Schmidtke, and not knowing if I was supposed to be talking about the surface—grades, college, etc.—or my fears and anxieties, which were at least 7.5 mental miles down in my psyche. In one of my favorite movies, Ordinary People, I was envious of the kid who had Judd Hirsch to talk to and get a real response from. I didn’t see a real therapist until I was 46, and by that time I had come a long way on my own, through contemplation, observation, and a strong desire to understand.

So, my life has turned out pretty great, and I have the comforting thought that I probably won’t live long enough to see the world get blown up or a neo-Hitler arise from the Far Right. (How far do you think Hitler would have gotten if his party was named the Tee-Party instead of Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei? I still regret that our American Partiers did not keep the name “Teabaggers” after they found out what it meant. That would have been so delicious.)

But—where was I?—the past (like the center of our planet) still exists, no matter how deeply it has been buried or “forgotten.” I’m not sure I understand what the subconscious really is and how it works—it’s like being controlled by an invisible government (and the visible one is bad enough). I already “understand” my past in words and pictures, but I expect somehow to be able to embody the whole time-driven story that is me, the equivalent of 7.5 miles down, where it’s really, really hot and more mush than solid. I don’t think I need to go the whole 4,000 mental miles to the center—where, surely, I understand now, there would have to be “sky,” wouldn’t there? because there is so much we can’t see, haven’t examined, haven’t even imagined—right beneath our feet / brain / what-have-you.

For lots of reasons, we prefer to look to our sky—the one that’s above us, readily visible, no drilling required—for the pie or the salvation, the “something bigger than ourselves” whether we call it god or our higher self. Wouldn’t it be great to have an eternal substitute mother or father, someone / something so big and powerful that it would never die, and therefore we would never die? It would be the answer to everything, wouldn’t it? And that’s what we want, the answer to everything. Because who can live on this razor’s edge of life-and-death with nothing to hold on to but a sharp, painful knowledge that it will all end one day. As Woody Allen said, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it’s all over much too soon.”

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I want to be whole—not a hole filled with a mystery too far down to reach. I want to experience my full potential, not limp along on the fire road just because it’s wide and smooth. But that means going down, down into the deep forest or a series of dark caves or a me-shaped hole in the ground, looking to find the mythical sky or the plastic hot mess, whatever it turns out to be.

So I’ve told you the metaphor, and you can find out more about the Kola Superdeep Borehole if you’re interested. By the way, they found water down there (H2 and O molecules) and “microfossils” from bacteria billions of years old. So the drilling wasn’t a failure, just full of surprises. Like our own personal depths, I suppose.

You are not dead yet, it’s not too late / to open your depths by plunging into them / and drink in the life / that reveals itself quietly there.—Rainier Marie Rilke

mary’zine #65: February 2014

February 5, 2014

Well, this is awkward. I had this issue of the mary’zine all ready to go when something happened that completely changed my premise, my mood, and my confidence. But what I had written was pretty inspiring, if I do say so myself, so I am retaining some of it. I wrote about miracles, how they don’t come from outside—Jesus or “the universe”—but from deep within. What I didn’t realize was that miracles can reverse or redefine themselves. Imagine you’re savoring your cup of wine and suddenly it turns back into water. Perhaps the miracle was not the transformation of the substance but the discovery that something deeper is going on. Or you are successfully risen from the dead, only to keel over 5 minutes later from a heart attack. I can’t presume to know what deeper miracle could be at work in that case, but my point is that things are not always what they seem. Even miracles.

To be continued on the other side of my sad air travel stories.

adventure time

Adventure is just hardship with an inflated sense of self—Orange Is the New Black

This definition of adventure suits me to a tee. My trips to the West Coast certainly qualify as “hardship,” but I also have a rather inflated sense of self. Voilà: adventure. Most people who fly across the country don’t consider it adventure or hardship. But they are not me, are they?

When my alarm went off at 5 a.m. on the morning of my departure for the December painting intensive, I wished with all my heart that I could call it off. I sat there for 5 minutes hoping for an act of God, a small personal injury, or the huevos to call Barbara and simply announce, “I’m not coming—and you can’t make me!” This attitude is not much different from the feelings I had in high school when I had to get up before dawn to get ready for a long car trip to Marquette or Houghton for a debate tournament. I’ll never know why I put myself through that. As with painting, it was my choice to participate, to take those forays into the scary unknown—but the part of me that wants to hold back, stay home, stay safe has always been so strong.

I confess to having flown between Green Bay and Chicago without wearing a seat belt. I hate asking for the extension, and the flight attendants on United Express tend to be less than diligent in checking. They have virtually nothing to do on that flight… no beverage service, nothing. They drone on about what to do if the plane crashes over Lake Michigan (which they never say in so many words; they call it a “water landing,” making it sound like a fun ride at Six Flags), but they often don’t notice my lack of seat belt or the noncompliance of the person in the seat in front of me who does not return her seat back to its full upright position. With all the rude jokes about fat Midwesterners, you’d think the regional airlines would invest in seat belts that go all the way around a body. None of this is an excuse for “flying bareback,” as it were. I’m just saying it happens sometimes.

close encounters with the martinets of the airways

The TSA agents at the Green Bay airport are patient and kind. They fall all over themselves accommodating folks, even wishing us an enjoyable flight! This attitude is not known in other airports, or at least I haven’t experienced it.

Flying west, I only have to go through security in Green Bay, but on the way back, the San Francisco airport can be its own special ring of hell. You never know what you’re going to encounter, or indeed what the rules are. This is between 4 and 4:30 a.m. after driving from The City to SFO, getting past the side-by-side signs that tell you that San Bruno Ave. is this way and San Bruno (the town) is that way. San Bruno Ave. is the turnoff for the airport, but it has always been a mystery to me why they don’t do something—perhaps add “SFO” to the Ave. sign—so confused out-of-towners don’t have to make the split-second decision of which way to go. I mean, I mostly know how to get there after X number of years of doing it, but it still makes me nervous every time.

So this is after the 7-day painting intensive. Terry happens to be on my flight from SFO to Chicago, but we might as well be in different worlds, because I’m in first class and she’s back in coach. I even have a different security line to go through. Both of us had discovered at some point that we have been “pre-checked” by TSA (when did that happen, and how, and why?). The only perk I’ve noticed is that we don’t have to take our shoes off, for which small favor I am grateful in the extreme. In San Francisco this time I’ve put everything I’m carrying into the bins. I notice a TSA agent standing near the body scanner, or whatever they’re calling it now, but I don’t know or care what he’s doing there. As I start to move toward the scanner, he stops me and says, with a hefty dash of disbelief in his voice, “You didn’t take your shoes off!” I say, “I’m pre-checked.” He says, “I’ll need proof of that.” I point out that the proof—my boarding pass—is at that moment going through the conveyer belt x-ray, and he says he can’t let me through unless I take off my shoes. It is early enough, I am tired enough, and I’m just plain fucking annoyed enough to want to take this dispute all the way to the Shoepreme Court (ha). But he has been designated the interpreter and enforcer of the rules, a self-contained unit like the baby doll who can both drink water and pee it out. I have been threatened in the past with being “escorted out” for not having thrown my water bottle away, so I know there’s no room for an indignant customer to vent. We are just a few steps away from the conveyer belt, but of course the guy is not going to go over there and pull my bag out and check the boarding pass. I know it’s stupid, but I finally am granted the right to keep my goddamn shoes on, and now I have to take them off anyway? He tells me that I was told I’d have to hold on to my boarding pass. “No, I wasn’t.” “I’m sure you were.” Blah blah blah. I’m not going to say the U.S. is turning into 1930s Germany, but if it were, they wouldn’t have to change much to keep us in line. We are being schooled.

One of the most bizarre encounters I’ve ever had with a flight attendant (FA) was also on the flight out of San Francisco. Because a male passenger had condescendingly (“No, no, no, no, no…”) informed me that I couldn’t put my coat and cane in the overhead bin because he needed to put his ginormous roller bag up there (Me: “I checked MY baggage”), the FA put them up front. When we got to Chicago, we were delayed for about half an hour on the runway because another plane was sitting at our gate. I only had an hour or so to get to my connecting flight. As we’re finally inching toward the gate, the same FA gives me back my coat but not my top hat and cane. (OK, there was no top hat.) When we’re standing by the door waiting for it to open, I ask for my cane, and she says, “I told you to remain in your seat until I see your wheelchair.” (I always order a wheelchair to get me between concourses, terminals, or universes, as the case may be.) This is ridiculous. I ask her why. She says, “It’s cold out there” (in the Jetway), but what does that have to do with anything? I argue with her, and she finally changes her tack: “So what do you want to do, then?” This throws me off, because—what? She asks the same question several times—I guess I’m not responding coherently—I’m hopped up on goofballs, lady!—and reiterates that she can’t let me out until she sees my wheelchair. A male FA then reaches over several heads to hand me my cane. (Although they may be equal in rank, the male in the situation gets to make a unilateral decision. If the sexes were reversed, I don’t think the woman could have overridden the man’s demand).

So the door opens, and I huff and hobble my way up the ramp. Another employee comes out of nowhere and says my wheelchair is waiting at the top, but when I get there it’s gone. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to make it to my next flight, but I give it the old college try. I flag down a passing cart, and the very nice woman driver takes me to the other terminal. At some point Terry catches up with me, and we discover we’re stranded: All the flights leaving Chicago are being canceled because of a massive snowstorm. The last time this happened to me, I was stuck there for 3 days. This time, I’m thrilled to have the misery-loves-company. As we approach the Hilton, we have to be handed over because they can’t take us “out of the airport,” though it’s under the same roof. T kindly pays for the room, but I insist on paying for dinner in the dining room, which costs almost as much.

We are both given new reservations for our separate flights the next day—me to Green Bay, her to Hartford CT. It still looks very snowy, so I don’t have much faith that we’ll get out of there anytime soon, but past the initial delight at having the extra time together, I really want to get home so I can change my clothes. In the morning we’re given free chits for the buffet and have a decent breakfast before parting ways with such sweet sorrow.

Going through security, I make it through with my pre-check privilege intact, but then I’m told I’ve been randomly selected for special treatment. I have to go to another area, hold my hands out with my palms up, and get swabbed for… explosives. Really? I’ve been pre-checked for my shoes but not my hands? When he’s done, the guy has to tell me to put my hands down, because I am at heart a good little rule-follower—isn’t that always the way with rebels? We secretly crave security but fight against that humiliating desire whenever possible.

It’s on the United Express flight north that I don’t wear my seat belt. At Green Bay—not having had a “water landing” over a certain Great Lake—I discover that my suitcase has preceded me, so that’s a comfort. (But why does the plane carrying my luggage never get stranded like the plane carrying me?) My Jeep is covered in snow but starts right up. After my usual side trip to El Sarape, I drive the 50+ miles home, fighting sleep all the way. As always, it is bliss to get home and see my kitties, who are in a flurry, wanting at the same time to (a) bounce around me and (b) run through the house celebrating my return (or so I like to think). We end up in a pile on the big chair and ottoman and sleep like angels.


… the delight, when your courage kindled,

And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

img001 copy 6

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.



the body abides

In mary’zine #62 (June 2013), I wrote about a major change in my relationship to my physical self. It happened over the course of 7 days of painting—or at least that’s when it made itself known—and at my advanced age, it felt like a miracle. One of the signs was a completely unexpected attraction to an old friend. I was burning up with it, but she was hesitant… more than hesitant… she didn’t see how it could work. So I reluctantly put those thoughts aside and tried to see that the important part of what had happened was my feeling. I was the one who had changed, I who now knew the power of long repression of the life of the body, and its release.


img001 copy 10


img001 copy 7

lez iz more

The feelings returned when I saw her next, 6 months later. She still had doubts, but then “one thing led to another” (as they say), and we became lovers. She didn’t hold anything back, and neither did I. I had never felt anything like this: We were completely compatible, like horse and carriage, like love and same-sex marriage. We were not afraid, or shy. We were both completely open to each other. She came to visit me over Christmas, and it was even better than before. I learned so much about my body, my expectations, my seemingly bottomless fount of desire and satisfaction. We felt as natural and close as we ever had in our almost 30-year friendship, but now with new feelings, new expressions. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but there was a strong sense of que sera sera, at least on my part. Of course, it’s always easier to trust the Truth when it’s working out so great for you in the moment.

This was huge for me. For at least 45 years I have worked on changing myself. I’ve followed people who seemed to have the truth, I’ve read books that seemed to have the truth…. I’ve had the practice of painting which has given me many rewards over the years, but the reward that has been the longest in coming to my conscious attention is this knowledge that we change, not only from the inside out, but from deep down, below our knowing. And I’ve learned to pay attention to the subtle indications, like when I started noticing I was getting more interested in my family and my hometown, back before I had any conscious knowledge that I would ever (in a million years) want to move back here. Something inside us knows before the conscious mind does, and given time and attention it eventually shows itself. So I say now that I don’t decide what to do, I find out what to do. When the time was right to make the move back home, everything fell into place. When I was finding out if I wanted to live here, I was committed to accepting the truth when it was revealed, whatever it was. I have a confidence in myself now that’s like the dreams I have in which I’m driving a car but I can’t see where I’m going. I panic, but suddenly I can see again and I’m perfectly safe.




One of the most amazing discoveries we made during the time my friend/lover and I spent together was the insignificance of orgasm. Not just insignificance: irrelevance. What we had was way better than     orgasm. More sustained, completely satisfying. I’m now spoiled for the self-induced orgasms I’ve used as my surrogate “sex life.” This is the opposite of “lesbian bed death.” This is lesbian bed resurrection, insurrection, uprising and rising and rising… a completely different way of experiencing sex.

ooh la la!


But then—life turned on another dime, and I found myself on the wrong side of the door: the door of Love. She couldn’t “emotionally commit”; it didn’t feel “completely right.” There is no way to accurately interpret what the one who turns away is saying. All the assertions that “I love you so much” and “sex with you is so wonderful” do all but make the mind implode when she says she’s “not ready” to embrace this new/old relationship.img001 copy 8

Despite my assertions about my new-found confidence, I haven’t quite gotten my head around this. I finally have the best sex of my life with someone I love very much, and it’s suddenly snatched away. (When good writers make bad puns….) But I’m quite sure I have not lost the most important thing: the capacity to express and receive love through my body. It’s just hard to know what to do with it now.

I know that life’s pain—of love, of attraction, of rejection—is the doorway. It’s hard to explain what this doorway is. What’s on the other side, and why is it important to go there? I believe that Truth is there, behind the pain, and it is not dependent on anyone outside myself, even a wonderful lover. So: My mission now is to face the Truth—no holds barred, no excuses accepted, and no explanations required.

For a New Beginning

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

—John O’Donohue (To Bless the Space Between Us)


mary’zine #59: November 2012

November 18, 2012


I’m listening to my iTunes library, at less volume than I would prefer in deference to the cats’ sensitive eardrums and complete lack of music appreciation. These are the last few songs I’ve heard (a là shuffle):

Title Artist
Bloodbuzz Ohio Oh Land
Some Other Time X
You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome Miley Cyrus
Epic Calexico
Map of the World Mariachi El Bronx
Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool Connie Francis
Most of the Time Bettye LaVette
One of a Kind The Spinners
Chain of Fools Aretha Franklin
Mother Mother Tracy Bonham
Viva Sequin / Do Re Mi Ry Cooder
Please Please Me Mary Wells
Gangsta’s Paradise Coolio
Mind Eraser The Black Keys
Time Is Tight The Clash

I’m arbitrarily stopping this list at 15, though I would love to fill up the next 10 pages with song titles and artists as they come up on iTunes. But I’ll spare you.


The best part of October for me was my old friend P’s visit. She took 3 airplane flights to get to me from Oregon to celebrate my birthday. We had a good time, very low key. The main goal was to find ways to imbibe the World Series games, because the Giants were in it. After they handily won it in 4 games, the next goal became ingesting the Packers game on Sunday and the 49ers game on Monday night. I did not mind this, because she in turn allowed me to nap whenever I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. “I’ll just go read,” she’d say. She read 4 or 5 books in the week she was here. Of course we ate out a lot (The Landing, Schussler’s, Mickey-Lu’s, Jozwiak’s, Brothers Three, El Sarape), and twice she made dinner for us: tacos one night and a vodka-and-sausage pasta dish another. She, my sisters, and my niece spoiled me rotten with cool birthday gifts. (As did Terry from afar.)

One pleasure that I seldom get anymore is telling P something about my life that she doesn’t already know. This time I came up with two things: (a) I had one red bedroom wall when I was a teenager. (b) My dream was to attend Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a small private liberal arts school where you got to do independent study, study abroad, etc. It was so out of the question financially that I didn’t even apply.

OK, I have to tell you this. A few weeks ago I found a guy blogging online who is not only from Menominee and went to MHS but went to Antioch! The synchronicity was just too much to ignore, so I wrote him an excited e-mail, thinking he was, you know, just some guy named David. He knew the Mars family who lived in the cove (on the bay) at the end of our street when I was a kid, so I told him about that and gave him a brief synopsis of my life and times. I also sent him a friend request on Facebook. The next day I realized what I had done. I hadn’t taken his last name into consideration: This was no regular guy, this was someone from Menominee’s upper crust; yes, we have one of those. (Even the smallest pie can have a crust.) I was amused, and bemused, to think that I expected him to giddily “friend” me back and read my blog too so we could compare notes. Well, I might have lived close to the rich people in the cove, and I might have walked the same hallways and had some of the same teachers he had, and I might have had a classmate with his surname, but that would be the extent of our “connection.” When he didn’t write back immediately, I thought, “I knew it!”

And then… he did write back. I was pleased, but also embarrassed that I had succumbed to my prejudices. He was very nice; told me the highlights of his life, where he had lived in Menominee, news of his younger sister whom I knew, etc. He then said he had read several of my ‘zines… and subscribed!! And here I was ready to wage class warfare—or was already waging it in my head, as I have done my whole life.

I had another—more bizarre—“reach out and touch someone” experience. I was at the Motor Co. waiting for my Jeep to get an oil change, and another woman who was also waiting sat with me and we started talking. I’ll call her “D.” I liked her immediately. Amazingly, we spent the next hour and a half (Jeepie also needed a new air filter, so it took longer than usual) telling each other all the major beats of our lives. When we discovered that we both know someone who works at Waupaca Foundry, we figured out from the family name that D used to work with my niece’s mother-in-law and that my niece’s younger son attended her grandson’s recent birthday party at her house. So it was a “small world” moment. It might not seem that surprising, since we do both live in the [Green] “Bay Area.” But there are still thousands of other people here, and even my sister Barb, a long-time teacher in Menominee, rarely runs into people she knows.

So anyway, one of the things D told me was that she had had a gambling addiction, which she overcame 2 years ago. She quit with the help of “the good Lord” and is very happy these days. When my car was ready, we exchanged names and phone numbers and agreed to get together for coffee sometime.

When I got home, still feeling the glow from our encounter, I decided to see if she was on Facebook. Her page came right up, and I was shocked. Her entire page consists of online gambling sites—games she has played, points she has won… and she had played very recently. It seemed to me that you can’t be “over” your gambling addiction and still gamble, even if it’s not for money. Also, I was troubled that she had lied to her husband a lot when she was gambling, and that she considers herself a “good liar.” Hmmm, I thought. Maybe I should rethink this potential friendship. I have a tendency to either freeze people out from the get-go or fall right into an enmeshed relationship with them. I’ve had many great experiences doing that but also some unwanted dramas. I wrote her a message on Facebook, telling her of my unease, but I wasn’t sure if she went there often, or at all, because the gambling sites post automatically. By the way, she’s not rich, far from it. I find that, despite my glorified “cow college” education (ha!), I’m really most comfortable with working class people. When I left Menominee at age 17, I wanted nothing more than to become a bigger, better person and hang out with bigger, better people. Now that I have reconnected with my “roots” [rhymes with “foots”] I’ve realized that I have a bond with these people that doesn’t always exist with those who grew up with lawyers or doctors as parents. (And yet, some of my best friends….)

But here’s where it gets weird. I e-mailed Barb about our encounter, and the next day she wrote me the following: She had been in line to check out at her local mini-mart, and she was carrying one of the chicken feed bags (with handles) that her daughter’s mother-in-law makes from, well, chicken feed bags. The cashier and the woman in line behind her were exclaiming over it and asking how they could buy some for Christmas gifts. Barb and the other customer walked out to their cars so Barb could give her the information. I think you see where this is going. When Barb told her who made the bags, D said, “I used to work with her! And you know, I was just talking to someone about her, who was that?” and Barb, who knew the whole story, said, “That was Mary, my sister.” “Oh yes! Oh my!,” D exclaimed. (They had a lot of ‘sclaiming to do.) Now I ask you, isn’t that weird?… To meet my sister the day after she meets me, and the same information gets passed back and forth because Barb’s connections are even more direct than mine? Barb even asked her if she got my Facebook message, and D said yes, she had, and she was still thinking about how to respond. She said she only plays online for free, but she could see why I would be concerned. Then she wondered about my “status.” “She’s never been married?” “No.” “But she had a partner?” “Yes.” “Why didn’t they get married?” “It was the ‘60s, people didn’t believe in marriage back then.” I strongly doubt that she’s a homophobe, but that may be the next chapter in our new friendship, if that’s what it’s going to be.


So back to P’s visit. We talked a lot and laughed a lot, as is our wont, and it was very relaxing and comfortable. Then, toward the end of the week, I began to feel the deep inner rumblings of an old, old feeling, one I thought I had escaped forever. To tell you about it, I first have to get in the wayback machine and give you some waybackground, some of which may be familiar to you, because I can’t seem to stop writing about it.


The least reassuring words I’ve ever heard are FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” As if fearing “fear” is small potatoes, practically impossible, a simple matter of semantics. Believe me, I’ve had a lot to fear in my life, both from external sources—attackers (both boy and man)—and from “God”—dead brother, invalid father, intrusive mother—but the worst of my fears have been those that I’ve created out of my own brain and body.

I’m not sure when it started, but by the age of 13 I was afraid of my own thoughts, afraid of confiding in a parent or teacher, afraid that they would send me away. That’s how little trust I had in adults. Having been driven to school on the first day of eighth grade by my molester, I felt like I was going to throw up, and that’s when I realized I was trapped. One of the tragedies of adolescence is that you may have a small piece of information about a large problem but not the piece that would solve it. You don’t know what you don’t know, as one D. Rumsfeld so disingenuously remarked. Now that I am much older and wiser, I suspect I was right to hide what was happening: I don’t think anyone would have understood. I read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden with the stark and terrifying realization (for fear creates its own reality) that it was my fate to end up a patient in the Newberry State Hospital–Michigan State Asylum for the Insane. (Just think about that name.) One of my cousins did end up there, but not until he was an adult; so I was not so far off in my fearful imaginings, assuming a genetic link: His father, my mother’s brother, was clinically depressed and/or bipolar his entire life. One of my favorite movies is Ordinary People, partly for Mary Tyler Moore’s performance, and partly for the therapy sessions that illustrate my point exactly: The boy whose brother died had only a partial understanding of the event. (If Judd Hirsch had been available to me as a counselor, instead of Mr. D., who was widely rumored to be a letch, I might have gone.)

My mother rarely took any complaint of sickness or injury seriously. If you thought you had cancer because your breasts were sore and John Foster Dulles had just died of cancer, better not bring that to her—she had much bigger fish to worry about. If you told her (which you didn’t) that your cousin was molesting you, or that you were afraid of throwing up in school, or that you had fallen on a bar on the backyard swing set and felt like you had seriously injured your vagina (you had shooting pains there for months), she would have had no sympathy. She often opined that it was hell to get old, but she had forgotten the hell of being young, as I think most adults do.

Once I believed that I could not control the fears engendered by my own brain and body, life became a landmine of horrible possibilities. Any situation where it would be difficult or embarrassing to get up and leave—a classroom or assembly, getting stuck in the middle of a row in a theatre—became an occasion for nausea and terror, followed by more nausea, more terror, and on and on. The very definition of a downward spiral. The meta explanation for my fear was that I didn’t trust what would come out of me, in all possible senses.


Sidebar: One of the most terrifying experiences I endured in high school was when I won an essay contest and a $500 scholarship (when $500 was a lot of money) from the Michigan Bankers Association. To accept the award, I had to attend a banquet at the Ludington Hotel in Escanaba. And I had to give a little thank-you speech. Someone told me that the hotel served steak that was bloody rare, and the chef would get mad if you didn’t eat it. (Or did I make that up?) I had never eaten steak in my life. There was so much to worry about beforehand that my worries had to stand in line. My mother drove me there, of course (Escanaba is 50 miles north of Menominee). As you can imagine, my worst fear was not a bloody steak but the idea that I might be seated in the front or middle of the room where I couldn’t get out if I thought I was going to be sick. A close second was that I had to give that little speech, which, if you think it was hard to come up with valid reasons for “preferring a full-service commercial bank” when I had never even written a check, it was even more difficult to figure out what to say besides “Uh, thanks.”

So we get there and we’re waiting outside the banquet room, and there’s a second-place winner from somewhere else in the U.P., a girl my age, and a chatty one at that. She and my mother carried on a sprightly conversation while I sat there near-paralyzed with fright. My mother didn’t recognize this demeanor for what it was, because I had been shut down (to her) for several years by then. We were finally escorted to our table, which I was relieved to see was near the exit, so that was a big help. I don’t remember the food, but I don’t think it was steak. After the MBA held their whatever-it-was, business meeting(?), I was introduced as the scholarship winner and got up and—considering I was deathly afraid of speaking in front of more than 2 people at a time—pulled a thank-you-I-appreciate-your-generosity-and-interest-in-education out of my ass, and then it was over. All the way home, though I was practically pissing myself with giddy relief, Mom never did know what I had gone through.


The fear=nausea problem, which was a little easier to deal with in college (no compulsory attendance or assigned seating), expanded into new territory when I began my first serious relationship, with P. Although I was thrilled to finally discover that someone could love me, I began to fear that I wouldn’t love her enough, or, more precisely, that my fear of not loving her would make me not love her and I would thus lose my only love, if you can follow that (psycho)logic.

I was very naïve about relationships anyway. The problem with being 25 is that you have no idea how young you really are, how inexperienced. Since I felt like an adult at age 15, I already felt quite old in my mid-twenties. As time went on, fear continued to rule my world and my relationship. I tried to explain it to P, but she was young, too (23 when we met) and I’m sure it wasn’t easy to see it as my problem that had little or nothing to do with her.

Although my issue was far from anything she herself had experienced, she’s the one who found me a self-help book that addressed and allayed my fears. It was Hope and Help for Your Nerves, and its sequel, Peace from Nervous Suffering, by Claire Weekes, an Australian doctor. It was like a gift from heaven, because I immediately knew that she was describing what I had—official name, agoraphobia—and exactly what I needed to do in order to get over (through) (past) it. I was ecstatic to discover that I had a common, easily remedied condition in which fear feeds on fear so that you literally fear “fear itself.” My relief was great, though it manifested at first as a band of pressure around my head. P was understandably not comforted when I told her that, but I knew it was a sign of something letting go. It took me quite a long time to learn to “go toward the fear” rather than cringe from it and become caught up in the vicious cycle I had become so familiar with. These books were so important to me that I felt like spending the rest of my life traveling the world telling people about this solution, because no one else seemed to understand it.


Sidebar #2: Years later I had the same impulse after I read the books that cured my severe lower back pain, Dr. John Sarno’s Mind Over Back Pain and Healing Back Pain. Sarno’s approach is basically identical to Weekes’, though the symptoms are different. But the cure is the same: Don’t react to it; face the fear; go through it. It’s almost impossible to convince someone with back pain that “stress” or “fear” could cause and sustain it, especially when there seems to have been a distinct physical cause for the pain. For me, it was lifting a stack of heavy books at the UCSF Medical Library. The fact that my mother was dying at the time didn’t seem to be related, and I went through a year and a half of mainstream and alternative treatments until I found the Sarno books and saved myself a lifetime of fear of sitting, walking, running (when I could still run), bending, you name it. (When I was first reading the books, I dreamed about a book called Mind Over Brain Pain. This book existed only in my dream, but it seemed apropos.) When my back “goes out” now, I don’t panic; I know it’s temporary. I used to drive down to Ojai to visit my Krishnamurti friends, and one time when I was still using a pillow for back support and taking 1,800 mg of Motrin every day, I found Sarno’s second book in a local bookstore. After reading it, I removed the pillow from my car seat, left without taking Motrin, and drove the 8 hours home to San Francisco without even a twinge of pain.


The power of the mind-body connection: It can fuck you up royally, but it can also bring you back to your senses and to a semblance of a normal life. I now see my fear response as a chronic condition that I have to be mindful of, probably forever. Even with the anxiety-lowering drugs I take, I’m still very sensitive to fear manifesting as a physical symptom. In the past few years, I’ve had pain in just about every part of my body, but I’m getting better at recognizing it for what it is and refusing to take it seriously.

So… I keep interrupting my story. Remember P? Her birthday visit, which we were both enjoying? Our relationship is as solid as it can possibly be, but again, fear does not answer to reason. When we were together-together, my birthday was also our anniversary. It’s been 41 years since we met at a small liberal arts college in Maryland. In those days I spent many an October 30 crying over my birthday dinner in a restaurant because of how fearful I was about our relationship and my seemingly hopeless mental problem. I knew I was pushing her away with my weird reactions, but I couldn’t help it.

This year, my birthday was the day before she was to return home, and as it approached, I became more and more aware of forces from the past gathering in me like a threatening storm. It was a feeling of unease that I couldn’t identify. My first impulse was to run from it, try to stuff it down, distract myself, just fake it till I dropped her off at the airport. But of course that’s exactly what you can’t do. And by this time in our relationship, there was no way I could pretend not to be having feelings.

P had already given me my birthday presents: a GPS for my car and several smaller gifts, such as four skull shot glasses. (Other people acquire a reputation for liking frogs, cats, or other animals; I am the Skull/Skeleton Person.) These gifts already exceeded my expectations. But on the morning of my birthday, I got an e-mail from Amazon informing me of a very generous gift card that she and her partner C had bought me. In that moment, something broke down, some defense I didn’t even know I had been mounting. My self-absorption was cut short when I “came to” and “remembered” that we love each other very much, that our relationship is no longer about the old dramas. Over the dining room table, eating breakfast later that morning, I said simply, “On a serious note…,” and proceeded to tell her of my epiphany… not in as great a detail as I have done here, but the basics. All residual or potential tension drained from the air between us and did not return. If you think of the unconscious as the below-water bulk of the iceberg that is your mind (and I do), this could be the way out of the dilemma of reacting to forces you don’t even know are in play. The vast iceberg of the self is accessible if you’re willing to face it, come what may. It feels like this has been my true life’s work: being an autodidact of my own psyche.


“Knowing that you are the person you were put on this earth to be—that’s much more important than just being happy.”—Bob Dylan

I’m not sure about this “person you were put on this earth to be” rhetoric. It implies that you were put here, first of all, and that you have a grand purpose. Maybe some people are, and do. I feel like I have lived the life I was “meant” to—if you take the word “meant” with several grains of salt. But I’m also aware that my little life, my little personality and collection of thoughts, beliefs, and memories, means nothing in the end. I have had a strong, mostly positive, effect on a few people, but in 100 years, as Anne Lamott says, “all new people,” none of whom will have heard of me. And that’s fine. I’m not looking to continue on and on, in the same or different form, incarnating my ass off, earning whatever it is you’re supposed to earn as you climb, lifetime after lifetime, up the hierarchy of beings, from bacteria to bodhisattva. I think we’re all temporary structures made of cells, organs, and a thought process that comprises memory, thought, fear, and a tendency to want to know “the future.” None of it is real, or if it is, it’s fleeting: We see the proof of that simple fact every day. As a culture, or a race, or a species, we protect and perfect our deniability, building and constantly adding to our fantastical theories of “life after death,” as if we’ve already solved the many-faceted dilemma of life before death. We’re trying to throw the ball back before we have it firmly grasped in our glove—to use a sports metaphor that is not my wont but quite timely, go Giants. In other words, instead of staying in the Now, which I believe is where Eternity resides, we’re trying to rush past the present to ensure our seat at the game, the table, the musical chair.

I may be completely wrong about all of this, but I accept the limitations of the human brain, especially mine. I’m just doing this for fun, you know. It’s not deadly serious to me. Let the boys with their mighty brains wax on before they wane, flow until they ebb. I don’t have a horse in this race, to go with the sports metaphor again. Life is bigger than me. It will (as if it hasn’t already) completely undo me—taste me and spit me out—because I don’t really exist in any meaningful way. I said something similar to a scientist friend whom I love to shock with my nonscientific hypotheses, and he exclaimed, “You mean you don’t have a life?” “That’s right!” I said. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.

And the words “mean”… “meaning”: What’s the meaning of life? That question was my mantra 24 hours a day when I was young. What does this poem mean, what does this painting mean? The search for meaning is the attempt to add an extra layer to what is already complete. Life is what it is. A poem means nothing other than itself. (See poem at the end of this screed.) A painting is what it is. What does bread mean when you’re hungry? We can make a meal of ideas, attitudes, beliefs, proofs, suppositions, but none of it means anything beyond the thing itself, life itself. Without this superfluous (or meaningless, if you want to be solipsistic about it) search for “meaning,” we are free. No need to translate, to put it into other words—no need, either, to make metaphors or argue points of philosophy or the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, except for fun.

So I can have my fears and my comforts, I can understand everything or nothing, I can make mistakes, make a fool of myself, say and do the wrong thing in any given situation. I just don’t have to defend, apologize, or collapse in a heap of tears, for fear of who does or doesn’t love me, or what I’ll be remembered or forgotten for. This is good news, sisters and brothers!

I asked Barbara (painting teacher) recently why she thinks I tend to cry voluminously on the last day of the intensive. I don’t see other people doing that. She thought about it and said, “It’s tenderness; you’ve been tenderized.” I don’t cry because I’m upset, or even that I don’t want to leave or that I’ll miss my friends, although of course I will. I’ve just been broken down—not in a bad way, but like I just got pounded from within like a piece of meat until I could no longer maintain my resistance. It’s embarrassing, but it’s also freeing. Now here’s that poem:

“Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish (1926)

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,Dumb
As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown –

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind –

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea –

A poem should not mean
But be.

Next: Some things that are not dreamt of in our philosophy, Horatio. (I told you I was doing this for fun.)



“CatGod” by Delme Rosser


“The Final Blow” by Eric Joyner



Plague doctor (source unknown)


“Bird’s mother” by AnnMei

mary’zine #57: September 2012

September 9, 2012

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

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

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

the wisdom of Deadwood

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

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

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

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


after life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

the literal exegesis

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

the metaphorical exegesis

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

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

when bad things happen to good kitties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

some gratuitous images from the interwebs

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



Bonne chance to all people of leftish persuasion come November…

(Mary McKenney)

mary’zine 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: #27 March 2003

October 3, 2009

a winter’s tale (or two)

I wake up at 6:30 a.m. and it’s cold in the house (my condo in San Rafael, CA). Thermostat is almost down to 50. I open the blinds. There would be frost on the pumpkin if there was a pumpkin. Brrrr! Put a sweatshirt on over my pj’s, turn up the heat, and settle down at the computer with my daily allotted half-full glass cup of coffee (i.e., the cup is made of glass, it isn’t just a metaphor).

There’s late-night e-mail from my sister Barb. Lately, her subject lines are variations on a theme: “–3 degrees,” “Wind chill factor of –15,” and the extremely chilling “–24 degrees this morning.” I’ve taken to calling her “Brrrrrb.”

In my world, the chill is short-lived. By the time my workday is under way, the sun is shining and the birds are chirping their unfinished symphonies. It’s another beautiful day in paradise.

I feel guilty when I write this to Barb:

I thought of you today when I was walking to the store to get a newspaper with only a t-shirt on (well, pants and shoes too). The sky was perfectly blue, not a cloud in sight.

She takes it in stride, though. She and K must have inherited those sturdy peasant genes. I was always a wimp.

Do not miss your chance to blow.


Barb’s e-mails to me go more like this:

First time on the snowblower this morning. I stepped out early enough to get my garbage and recycling by the alley to be picked up and realized that if I was going to get out, I would have to do at least minimal snowblowing. We had about 5 inches of snow and it was the heavy wet stuff. Freezing rain had also started. I hopped on the tractor and blew my way out of the garage and did the back sidewalk enough to get the mailman to my back door. I then blew my way to the front walk. I saw Shirley had her driveway plowed but not her front walk, so just kept going past her house. I had gotten that far and there was nowhere to turn around, so I did the entire block. I turned around in the street and blew snow off the sidewalk on my way back too, making the path wider. I then tackled the driveway and part of the side of the house. The plow had already been through so had the nice little mound of packed snow they always leave to contend with.

And only then does she hop in the truck to drive to the middle school where she teaches math and science.

After burying my garbage cans [I’m guessing she accidentally buried them with blown snow, she didn’t actually go out there and dig a pit and throw them in], I dug them out, put them away and headed off to work. As I was driving there, thankful I had 4-wheel drive, the radio said it would have cancellations in a few minutes. They played one song, then another song, and I kept thinking, “Hurry up or I am going to make it all the way to school before I hear what has been canceled.” Just as I got to the unplowed school parking lot and saw no teachers’ cars there, they announced school had been canceled.

In my safe, warm haven thousands of miles away, I entertain myself with the image of my baby sis on the John Deere tractor-snowblower, bundled up in her long wool coat and Skip’s red snow hat (known as a “chuck” for some reason, and often referred to as a “condom hat” for a soon-to-be-obvious reason) with a full head-covering and an opening just big enough for her eyes and nose. The hat sticks way up high on her head so she has an attractive floppy knitted top of the head thing going on—or the condom look, if you will. They can see her coming for miles. She “blows out of the garage”—in the movie, she’d be played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he wouldn’t open the garage door first—and barrels down the street, spewing snow right and left. Or maybe it only blows one way, what do I know. No place to turn around, so she keeps going. She’s like Santa Claus without the toys, blowing down the streets of town to make the way safe for little girls and boys, the elderly, her fellow Northern-Americans. In my fantasy, she’s picking up speed. She’s got grit, and also pluck. She’s determined to do the whole M&M loop (M = Marinette, WI, & M = Menominee, MI). She blows down Cleveland St. to Pierce, heading for the Hattie Street Bridge by (the long-closed) Scott’s Paper Mill.

Crossing the bridge into Michigan, to M’s twin frozen city of M* [see “Footnotes” below], she blows up 10th Avenue past the courthouse and jail, up to First Street, turns toward the marina and band shell, perhaps waving gaily to the guys ice fishing in their shanties out on the bay. Past Menominee Paper Company, over the Menekaunee Bridge and past Marinette Fuel and Dock, where she sees a ship unloading pig iron, salt, or coal. “Hiya boys, how’s it hangin’?” Then past Waupaca Foundry (where son-in-law Aaron works) into Menekaunee**. Where there are docks there are men, and where there are men there are bars, so she blows a path past Helen’s Edgewater Bar, Rei Tec Bar, Mike and Jean’s Bar, The Cactus Bar, The Aloha Inn and The Corn Crib, all on the same block, on the same side of the street. (Shelly’s Beer Depot is across the street, in case all the bars are hit by lightning or you just like to drink at home.) Fortunately, Barb didn’t inherit Daddy’s alcoholic gene, so she’s not tempted to stop in at the Aloha Inn for a bottle of Blatz with a paper umbrella sticking out the top. But she’s gettin’ tired, mighty tired, and she’s covered with snow (like they say, don’t spit into the wind, especially when it’s coming out of a tractor). Finally, she comes up the home stretch past Barbaraland to home sweet home, completing the loop, and is greeted by the mittened applause of neighbors pouring out of their houses with steaming mugs of hot chocolate in hand*** to warm up our heroine.


*In my “research” for this little fantasy, I discovered that the “Twin Cities” have been upgraded to the “Tri-City Area.” I couldn’t imagine what the third city could be, so I asked Barb. She said it’s Peshtigo, about 10 miles south. (So two of the Tri-Cities are in Wisconsin. My U.P. references are going to take a hit.)

**Ah, more research is called for. Menekaunee used to be a rogue village of squatter fishermen and other hardscrabble folk that was later annexed to Marinette. A “working class haven,” it has its own flavor and is still sometimes referred to as Fishtown; the residents call themselves River Rats.

***This is just a fantasy, OK?, so I don’t know how they could be applauding while holding steaming mugs of hot chocolate.

Ah, for the zines when I felt like riffin’ ‘n’ rappin’… I could have done some serious language damage to that story, with words like snow and blow to work with. “Doncha know I gotta go out and blow, cuz I’m goin loco from the snow, it’s piled up so…. On second thought, NO, fergit this snow shit, it’s frigid as a Frigidaire out there, that’s it, I’m gettin’ out of this place ‘n’ save my frozen face. Don’t need a weatherman to know which way the snow blows, it blows for thee, no more for me, you dig?”

Unfortunately (?), I’m not in the mood at the moment. But give me time.

Barb also writes:

My fingers are kind of numb right now. I just spent the last 20 minutes going in and out of the house trying to get LaMew from a cat fight that would have kept him out in the cold too long.

Compared to LaMew, Pookie is a pussy.


On a serious note, Barb tells me our cousin Jerry has died.

Apparently he had frozen pipes during that cold snap we have been having. He was found under his trailer, apparently electrocuted himself trying to thaw out the pipes. He wasn’t found until 3 days later and was frozen and blue.

Holy Christ! This is the same cousin who passed out in a cornfield one night 25 or so years ago and got frost bit so bad they had to amputate both his legs. How weird is it that the two major catastrophes of his life involved freezing? But here’s the saddest part:

Deb got a call from the funeral home. It seems they took Jerry’s phone/address book to find a relative and all the names he had, had phone numbers that had been disconnected. They found Deb’s number in there [they were neighbors] and called her to see if she could find a relative. Turns out her mom works with an ex-wife who put them in touch with someone [his current wife?] in South Carolina.

Barb kept watching the paper for a funeral notice but never saw one. Jerry’s estranged brother and sisters apparently had no interest in picking up the body, straightening out his affairs, or even claiming his stuff. His car still sits out in front of his trailer, covered with snow.

This just in:

Apparently the wife who lives in the Carolinas wanted to be done with it all as soon as possible, so she sold the trailer and all of its contents to the people who own the trailer park for $3000…. the pictures on the walls were even left behind. Talk about wiping out the existence of a person.


I showed my therapist J some pictures of my sisters and their families, and she saw the resemblance between me and Barb right away. (K looks more like our wild Irish aunts.) What’s more startling is that our humor is so similar. She was 9 years old when I went away to college, so I don’t think she got it from me. And I don’t remember any of us being funny at home. Mom loved comedy on TV and in books, so we were familiar with Bob Newhart, Vaughn Meader (he impersonated John F. Kennedy in the early ‘60s—a short-lived career), and several Jewish comedians— Herb Shriner, Shelley Berman, Sam Levenson, Allan Sherman. (Interesting ethnic attraction, considering she was a sheltered farm girl from the upper Midwest.) So most of our humor was imported—or else I’ve forgotten the witty banter that kept us all in side-splitting laughter all those years.

A friend of mine sent me one of those lame Internet questionnaires that ask about your personal preferences—books you’re reading, favorite color, have you ever been in love, etc. I filled it out and sent the survey with my answers to Barb. She filled it out too and sent me her answers. One of the questions was:


Here is Barb’s answer:

Only after LaMew has eaten a rabbit and wants to sleep it off, but not often.

I love that her humor sneaks up on me so that I almost miss it. One day I wrote to her,

Sometimes I wonder what our home life would have been like if Daddy hadn’t gotten MS. His alcoholism would have progressed… Mom might have divorced him… you might not exist….

Barb replied,

I wonder if Mom would have been as hard and controlling, using the guilt factor on us kids, or you kids as the case might have been.

When I LOL’d to this and asked her if her humor reminded her of anyone, she answered, “Yes, I noticed the similarity, sis.”

I used to be concerned about Pookie taking over the mary’zine, but I think Barb is a much bigger threat. She starts by wheeling in the Trojan horse, getting her notable quotes quoted by the horseload, passing along greetings to J—my J—who says she’s getting to know my sister from her stories and bon mots, and then one day, POOF: barbie’zine. Well, maybe she’ll quote me once in a while.

Some more U.P. news, and then I’ll try to think of something in my Left Coast life that’s compelling enough to share.

We had a triple shooting in Stephenson this weekend…. One of the women was the former librarian’s daughter. Apparently it was a husband-wife breakup with the wife’s friend (librarian’s daughter) there as a mediator while the wife got her things out of the home. They thought the husband was gone. He was not, ambushed them and shot them with a shotgun. The wife is in critical condition, the husband shot himself after shooting them and is dead, and the librarian’s daughter has buckshot lodged in her head they are not going to remove. More excitement in small town U.S.A.

Mom used to work in the library in Stephenson (Stephenson is in the U.P., 27 miles north of Menominee; it is not yet part of the Multi-City Area) and knew the buckshot’d woman. People get murdered in California too, of course, but they’re mostly just folks you read about in the paper. Back there, pretty much all the tragedies are up close and personal, you either know the people involved or you know someone who knows them. I remember a horrible event from about 30 years ago. There were four or five (or six) brothers who worked on neighboring farms, and one day one of the brothers went down into a cellar (?) or an underground tank (?) or something to check on a gas leak (?) or whatever (they don’t call me Storyteller for nothing; OK, they don’t call me Storyteller at all). He didn’t come back up and didn’t respond to their calls, so another brother went down to check on him. And so on, and so on…. and in the end, all the brothers went down there and died, like, within minutes. I’m not going to be so cruel as to suggest that brother #3 (at the very least) should have figured out that it wasn’t a good idea to follow #1 and #2 down there, but maybe it’s one of those male-bonding things. There was a picture in the paper of the wives of these brothers being interviewed for the story—can you imagine what a shock it must have been? And I remember thinking they looked… not unhappy. But no one in my family knew them, so that kind of shoots the whole premise of this paragraph.

Oops, the computer is checking my e-mail and blows the siren that announces I have mail. And guess who it’s from?

LaMew seems to be interested in this chicken commercial with a blacked out breast area. The chicken walks around and the commercial says showing large breasts on TV is prohibited in some states except when it’s in a sandwich.

Which reminds me. Pookie likes to watch TV and will recognize animals on the screen. Mom once sent me a made-for-cats video that shows real birds and squirrels in the videographer’s backyard. Pookie was fascinated by these larger-than-life creatures. But I was surprised the other night when he recognized a CARTOON of a cat…. and there was no identifying kitty noise. I was impressed. The big lug is smarter than I thought [oops better start dumbin down again she could be on to me]. This gives me paws… I mean pause… where did that come from? [heh heh] Soon after Pookie came to live with me, I came home from work one day and the TV was blaring. The remote was on the bed, so I figured I had left it there and he had accidentally stepped on it…. But now I wonder…..

fan mail from some frozen flounder

Just to show that I can cannibalize e-mails other than my sister’s, I finally heard from my old friend K—oh dear, there aren’t enough letters in the alphabet to go around; I’ll have to call her KM—who lives in lower Mich. She chimes in with:

… your last THREE ‘zines have provoked me to want to really write to you, for a zillion reasons—and you will probably hear from me soon. The U.P. connection…. wow. The first of your U.P. ‘zines came just as we were giving a U.P. party! ….

So now I can’t wait to hear what on earth a “U.P. party” is. Guys in lumberjack shirts eating pasties? Video showings of Anatomy of a Murder and Escanaba in Da Moonlight (both filmed up there)? The partygoers speaking in strange tongues?: “I s’pose, eh?” (The Canadians get all the credit for the “eh” thing. The U.P. is truly the forgotten land.)


Well, I’ve done an honest accounting of recent events in my life and have come to the conclusion that nothin’ much is happening here, so I will merrily merrily row my boat back in time and tell you a story. Yes, it comes from her.

I asked Barb if she likes margaritas (mmmmm—margaritas). So she lays this memory on me:

Back before I got married I had a margarita experience:

Jennifer K. and I went out with a couple of guys for the evening; me with my then boyfriend, Dean, and she with the Hunka Hunka Burnin Love guy that I wished I was with, Mark. I had 3 margaritas that night as we danced the night away. I was driving a big old heavy Chevy. We dropped off my boyfriend first, then dropped off Mark. Made the mistake of turning onto 10th Ave. which was undergoing street repair at the time. On gravel first and then came to the barriers. “Oh,” the slightly inebriated me said, “we are at the end of the construction already,” so I went around the barrier. After traveling for about a half a block, I came to a dead stop. What on earth was that in the middle of the road? It rose about 2 feet above the road. Focusing in, we discovered it was the railroad tracks, and when I looked to my left, discovered the manhole cover was also 2 feet in the air. I was in sand, and when I stopped, my car sunk like a stone up to the floorboards. Jennifer laughed so hard, she fell out of the car.

We walked back to Mark’s house, what else could we do at 2 in the morning. We woke his parents, they weren’t too pleased. The 3 of us then walked back to my place. I lived in Pollock Alley at the time…. This was down by First Street mind you and my car was near the old Red Owl store on 10th Ave.

We had breakfast, crashed, and slept until noon…. Jennifer was going to drop me off by my car…. We got there and the place where the car had been was all smoothed over. Only one lone guy was there and I went up and asked if he knew where my car was…. He just grinned and said it was at Holiday Wrecking. I called them and asked how I could get my car back. $10 [Ed. note: !!!] was the answer. That day was payday, but Jennifer had to get back to Green Bay, so I had to ask Babe, my boss, if I could get my check early, as I had no money, and then had to explain why. She gave me the money to get my car along with a lecture.

[Barb was working as a bartender at the time. She was a tough cookie, took no shit from the biker patrons. P and I were visiting once when they brought a band into the bar and she sang some Three Dog Night songs… Jeremiah was a bull frog… She could belt ‘em out pretty good.]

I got my car, Jennifer went home, and I stopped at a friend’s house. “Oh, you’re the one they’re looking for. The cops were trying to find the owner this morning, and went to your old address in Marinette.” I had just moved to Menominee. Scared that they would come to Hodan’s while I was working and haul me away in handcuffs, I went to the CopShop and asked them if they were looking for me. “Why, what did you do?” was the question. “That was my car on 10th Ave. this morning.” He just smiled and said, “If you ever do that again, just make sure it is removed by 7:00 in the morning.” Relieved, I thanked him and walked out.

Do I like margaritas? Oh yeah. Can I handle them? Oh no.


For a while I couldn’t figure out why I was so focused on life back there in “Wish-Mich,” as we have taken to calling the Two-State Area. My life here is fine… finer ‘n frog’s hair, as my father would have said. There’s really nothing to tell—in therapy, as well. I tell J I’m swell, and I don’t have to sell her on that, she can see and feel that I’m in a deep well (well, she said “pool” but that’s cool too). She helped me see that I’m not in my head, it’s all somatic, almost automatic, this response to my changed relation to my family. I might not be ready for this task, to write about the blast from that long-ago past. But now I see that if things aren’t all happening at the same time, they might as well be. This is the mental snowblower, the mind eff’er: “past” is just a word we use to separate perceived realities. We all know that memory is fallible, our brain is malleable, our thoughts not believable, I know it sounds inconceivable that the past can actually, literally, change, or rather, it doesn’t change, there is no “it,” it’s all inside us. So not only do we not remember things as clearly as we think, but even if we do remember images that we have set in concrete, gaining a reality much more defined than when they were “real,” our error (my error) was to think that what I remembered was even true at the time. We pretend there are no limits to our perceptions, but my childish conceptions were just points on a Tri-City map. Barb and K and Mom and Dad each brought their own realities to bear, making a rich, confusing stew of points of view. So where is the truth? It’s got to be deeper than our experience, which is fleeting as all get-out until we codify and build a monument to our flimsiest recollections. We call ourselves survivors, but do we even know what we survived? They say that at a wedding it’s the bride’s day—for the bride. For the usher, it’s the usher’s day. We each represent maybe one molecule in all the simultaneous happenings that happen just in our own little spheres. At the age of 4 as we’re driving through Chicago and I call “Nigger!” out the window, I’m as proud as when I connected the pictures of Dick and Jane with the words in the book. That was my “reality.” I knew nothing of the reality of those urban people of color just trying to get through the day in early 1950s USA.

My point, in case you missed it, is this: We are all just as ignorant “now” as we were “then” about all the other points of view through which the world takes on its hue. Obviously, I have learned a thing or two, but there are always just a few more blind spots in the way of enlightenment.

So with every e-mail I get from my sister, and every story from her past, or our shared past, or the present as it is lived in that working class haven or hell, depending (again) on your point of view—nephew Joshua on strike from Marinette Marine, times are lean, he’s getting bags of groceries from local churches, the odd job doing drywall and all, it’s so much like the life I recall but lived in different ways by all…. I see now that the narrow thread I have clung to all these years, through all these me-mories, a thread called My Life, is no more enduring than the wispy web of the spider above my bed. And somehow that is such a relief. It tells me the past is wide open, there’s no ground beneath my feet, nothing to cling to and no need to cling to anything. The past is just as mysterious as what we call the future, which is only “past” or “present” from a different point of view. If you’re standing high up on a hill and see two trains far away, each coming toward the other on the same track, and you somehow notify each of them to stop because a crash is imminent… are you “seeing into the future,” or do you just have a different perspective?

Which brings me to… WAR. I’ve been compartmentalizing like crazy from down here in my deep well or pool, call me a fool but I surface reluctantly and wonder what my place should be in this worldwide multidimensional drama that is unfolding.

I don’t want to write a polemic about it—there are plenty of other people shouting and arguing and taking sides and looking down on each other—the ugly American, the arrogant French, the self-righteous Arab, the embattled Israeli, and throw in the mix North Korea, India, and Pakistan… where does it end? (Canada?) There are infinite points of view, not only of nations and of factions within nations, but between our hearts and our minds, and vice versa, not to mention the many divisions, seen and unseen, within ourselves.

The peace activist and the war criminal have the same heart, like it or not. All conflict comes from that heart, on different scales and levels of power, of course, but in essence it’s the same. It’s us vs. them, me vs. you, it’s that well of feeling you call on when you’re almost crushed by an SUV that’s wandering back and forth across lanes while its driver chats obliviously on a cell phone, or when you want to kill the woman ahead of you in the checkout line who waits until she has heard the total cost of her groceries before digging into her purse and finally coming up with a checkbook and starts laboriously writing the amount and double-checking the checker’s total and showing her ID and filling out the checkbook register in complete detail. Is it better to fume at a fellow ordinary human than it is to massacre hordes of people? Of course. But that division is where it all starts. I am not like you. You’re different. I’m good, you’re bad.

We band together with others on whatever (shifting) basis, be it family, school, town, country, mode of transportation, political party, age, sex, skin color, sexual orientation… all the myriad ways we find to group ourselves into “self” and assign others to the limbo of “nonself.” (Sure, our immune systems do that too, but we’re supposed to be better than our biology—aren’t we?) The SUV driver says, “The only thing that matters is that my family is safe.” What s/he’s really saying is, Who gives a shit if I kill someone else’s family in a fender bender? The only thing that matters… is me! Then there are the people with their Baby on Board stickers, like Watch out, I have procreated! P had a near miss with another car once, and the woman passenger shouted out the window, I’M PREGNANT. Oh, excuse me, I should have divined the state of your uterus and pulled over to let you pass undisturbed by my nonpregnant ass.

I have had a car cut in front of me and the driver gives me the finger when I honk my outrage; then he roars off and I actually hope he crashes. Naturally, one doesn’t want to “own” these feelings so instead we project them this way and that, like human snowblowers. Don’t care where it lands, just get it out of here.

“Peace” is always “out there,” thwarted by someone else’s behavior or beliefs. Whenever we blame external forces—even if those forces are the clearly demented George W. Bush and cronies—we create “war.” But we think “peace” is only about governments, treaties, settlements. It’s something high and holy that can only come from the top down, negotiated by our leaders, never mind the little “wars” that get people shot to death just for taking someone else’s parking spot. My parking spot—Our land—I was here first—God is on our side—You started it. Every “political” argument is circular. I’m the victim here. No, I am.

The oxymorons are all around us. Angry peace activists. Environmentalist SUV drivers. No war for oil [bumper sticker on gasoline-powered cars]. Animal rights activists advocating the killing of defective human babies [Peter Singer]. Hate-filled Christians.

One day in a supermarket, I noticed a woman who was all prissy-lipped staring at another woman who had offended her in some way, like maybe brushing past her or leaving her cart in the middle of the aisle. The offending woman was completely unaware of her transgression, and I could see the wheels turning in the head of Prissy Woman, “You bitch, get out of my effing way.” So, because Offending Woman didn’t offend me, I’m free to judge Prissy Woman, like, Get a life, Prissy Woman, and then of course, I remember how many times I have done exactly the same thing, and I wonder who’s watching me judge Prissy Woman for judging Offending Woman. It’s a total merry-go-round, what goes around just keeps coming and going around, no way to get off the ride until, maybe, we take the Bible’s advice: Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye (Matthew 7:5).

But here is humanity’s dirty little secret: it is pleasurable to hate. Rage, anger, and annoyance—the large grievances and the petty—take us off the hook of our own transgressions, but they also just plain feel good. To see the driver who cut in front of you get pulled over by the CHP. To hate the slow driver ahead of you, and in the next minute hate the tailgater in back of you. We have endless opportunities to stoke this pleasure. And what is the alternative? We don’t even like to think about what it would mean to abstain from the unholy joys of resentment and revenge. So we sweep our own culpability under the rug—our spitefulness, our tailgating, our honking and finger-giving at the too-slow and the too-fast, our anger directed at our parents, neighbors, Bush, Saddam, Al Qaeda, right-wing Christians, peacenik lefties, Zionists, towelheads. We truly live in a “pluralist” society/world, you can’t keep up with all the targets of otherness that are presented to us each and every day. We’re addicted to being pissed off, to blaming, to finger-pointing, to imploring “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?” (Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks).

So yeah, “fuck the war” out there but what about “fuck the war” in my own vengeful heart? When does that become the truth that sets us free? Are we going to wait until the aliens come (the outer space kind; the Mexicans are already here) and we can all band together because we have magically, under pressure, turned all humans into self?

We get annoyed when other people act as if they’re the only ones who count—because, deep in our faithless hearts, we believe that we’re the only ones who count—we and whoever we have included in our circle of “us.”

That’s the only problem I have with “family.” It can be a wonderful thing, a respite from a hostile world, a source of comfort and support—but it also encourages the belief in us vs. them, self vs. nonself, family (community, religion, country) vs. non-.

Ahem. And now for something completely different….

working on my (t)issues in therapy

One of the unexpected by-products of therapy for me has been my invention—or discovery, depending on how you look at it—of a new art form. I don’t have a catchy name for it, but I’m open to suggestions. Simply put, I am reclaiming the magic of spontaneous expression through the humble medium of… Kleenex—the tearing and twisting of; see also soggy mass. This Kleenex Kreativity (too kute?) is a bit like very flimsy origami, except that the resulting creations are not your conventional waterfowl, your cranes, your flowers—no, they are natural, intuitive expressions of my subconscious or, as I like to think of my subconscious, the stream of humanity through which all KreativityTM, Kleenex or otherwise, flows.

This most ephemeral art form always ends up in the trash, which is fitting, because in my artistic expression I am as the wind, the passing clouds, the morning mist, here today, gone at the end of the session. In fact, I liken myself to the artist in the movie “Rivers and Tides,” who creates artworks from materials found in nature. He goes out before dawn and pastes twigs together with his own spit to make a sculpture, say, and as the sun rises (or the illusion thereof), its warmth dries the spit and his twig sculpture falls apart. Then he moves on… though not before photographing his “temporary” art for posterity. I know exactly how he feels—the thrill, the challenge of kreationTM is worth the inevitable destruction by the same natural forces that drove him to kreateTM in the first place—“the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” (Dylan Thomas) or, in my case, the force that through the white fuse drives the ghost, the angel, the Arab, the little person with a big head and flimsy legs, the finger puppet, the ring with a twisted 0-carat diamond on top, the je ne sais quoi. (Note to self: must change name of art form slightly to avoid action by Kleenex attorneys. I have not yet kreatedTM a Kleenex attorney, but if you put 100 monkeys in a room with 100 boxes of Kleenex, I’m quite sure that at least one practitioner of law would emerge.)

Is this deeply spiritual but impermanent art what Freud had in mind when he encouraged free association in therapy? Did they have Kleenex in his day? Maybe not. I’m sure he would have seen the possibilities in this telling construction performed by unconscious fingers while the head of the person with the fingers sheds copious tears and tells her story of woe. A self-generated Rorschach test. Sometimes the KllenxKreationTM-to-be doesn’t get crumpled and twisted, merely torn, and then what arises are the ever-popular eye slits and mouth through which I peer at J and stick out my tongue as she valiantly attempts to make a serious point. Or the fingerless glove that allows me to waggle my digits provocatively. If I haven’t made it clear, I have no idea this kreativeTM activity is going on until, as the tears dry on my cheeks, I look down and gaze in wonder at the delicate (or soggy) KlenexKreationTM that has sprung to life through the grace of God and the Kimberly-Clark Corporation.

Therapy is Process. You could not do Therapy without Kleenex, ergo, KlienxKreativity Is ProcessTM, or so I humbly submit.

Donations for the purchase of raw materials, preservation of the artwork (I’m starting to think there could be a book in this), and possibly a website and future Museum of KlnxKreativityTM are always welcome.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine #40: September 2009

September 24, 2009

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

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

if you don’t remember the ‘60s…

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

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

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

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

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

—Jimmy Buffett

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

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

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

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

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

—Jefferson Airplane

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

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

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

thought experiment

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

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

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

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

“You were there for the gold feather.”

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

“They were horrible floors.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, enough about me (as if).

truth takes another drubbing

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

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

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


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

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

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