Posts Tagged ‘therapy’

mary’zine #58: October 2012

October 12, 2012


This photo was taken on October 11, 2012, a few hours north of Menominee. Winter! Bring it on!


Also, on 10-11-12, a child was born. She is the beautiful daughter of my dear godchild Kelly and her lovely husband Duncan. She has not yet been named. I’m rooting for Paloma Zapata, but I doubt it will make the cut.


long day’s journey into Neenah

                         Neenah, Wisconsin      


Once a year I have to drive down into the belly of the once-great state of Wisconsin (before Scott Walker et al.) to have a 15-minute session with my psychiatrist so he can determine if I’m still (in)sane enough to be taking two psychoactive drugs (sertraline and lorazepam). Mostly I tell him I’m doing great, he asks how my work is going (“It’s going going gone, doc”), and we make semi-small talk for the remaining minutes.

Last year I had borrowed Barb’s GPS to help me find his new office, but this year all I had was a primitive mapquest map showing an entirely different route that involved going farther down the highway, exiting, skirting 3 roundabouts, and then turning north again for what looked like several miles. I hadn’t thought to bring a real map with me, no, that would have been too easy.

I was deadly sleepy the whole way down there, 92 miles. I wanted to sleep so bad, it was all I could do not to give in to it. I sang along with a classic rock station, to the sort of music I haven’t listened to in decades: “Smoke on the Water,” “Rebel Yell,” “Hot Patootie/Bless My Soul,” “Riders on the Storm.” Actually, I still like a couple of those. I sang, I shouted, I made up nonsense lyrics—like to the tune of “The Rubberband Man” (The Spinners, 1976):

Hey, y’all prepare yourself
For lorazepam… man
You never heard a sound
Like lorazepam… man
You’re bound to lose control
When lorazepam man starts to jam

Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo….

I finally got off at exit 129, made it through 3 or 4 roundabouts (stopped counting at 2), and clearly missed the one where I was supposed to veer north again. So I’m driving, driving, and instead of turning around and searching for roundabout #3 and the road I was supposed to turn on, something with Breeze in the name, I decided just to randomly drive north for a while, then randomly drive west and, you know, maybe I would just run into the place. So I took a tour of Neenah, then found myself in Menasha, which was definitely not part of the plan. I had been looking for a cluster of president street names because I was pretty sure I needed to find Harrison St. (questmap had blown off console onto passenger side floor), but I only saw trees, Oak, Elm, then oh look, there’s Washington, and Lincoln, and… Franklin. Benjamin Franklin was never president, was he? I tried to put myself in the eager, intuitive state of a tourist who is lost but sees it as an opportunity to open up to the thrill of adventure. But I was not in Gay Paree…. Neenah was rapidly receding from me, or I from it, and I could end up in Appleton—or worse, Lake Nebagamon (hmm, sounds familiar)—if I didn’t look out. (Lake Nebagamon is a real place.)

Finally, I stopped a friendly mailman on the street, and he tried his darnedest to tell me how to get to Harrison. I was to “go up here and turn right”—then that street would turn into Commercial and I would see signs for 41 or maybe 117 and I should turn right again, then something about a viaduct (?) or an aqueduct (?)—do they still have those?—and then something-something Winneconne… and then he got confused and started over. “Go up here….” When he got to the Winneconne part, he forgot the name, and I, idiot savant, was actually able to come up with it, and he chuckled at the irony. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to follow his directions, but I thanked him anyway and started off. Amazingly, I did get to Harrison St. But then I wasn’t sure what came after that, and the time of my appointment was drawing near (fortunately, I got to town ‘round about 45 minutes early). By then I seemed to be in some godforsaken part of Neenah with a train yard and smokestacks. So I pulled off on a side street and called Dr. V’s office. Thank God for cell phones! The person who answered asked me where I was, and I said “Harrison and Jackson.” She said “Jackson?!” in a tone of voice that told me she had no idea where that was, but she quickly rallied and told me to go south on Harrison, and I would see “JJ’s” and then “Otto’s” and then some “trees and water” and then something-something, turn left or right, I was already at my limit of what I could remember. So then I start driving south on Harrison, and it occurs to me that if she wasn’t sure where Jackson St. was, maybe I was already south of her and I should be going north! There were lots more trains, a country road, what looked like a cement factory, not that I know what a cement factory looks like, and suddenly I see JJ’s! Then Otto’s! I was ecstatic. Then there were “trees and water”! Then I saw the sign for Jewelers Park Drive, drove right in like I knew where I was going all along, and arrived at #40, sweaty but triumphant, right on time for my appointment.

The two women in the office and I bantered a bit about my roundabout way of getting there, and they asked me where I was coming from. I said Menominee, Michigan, and one of them said, “We were just talking about Menominee, Michigan, at lunch.” Really? Yes, someone had recommended a Thai restaurant on 10th Avenue that was to die for. (I thought, “I bet.”) Then we had to do the insurance thing. I always just hand over what cards I have and expect people behind the counter to know what to do with them. But one of the women pointed out that there’s a phone number for “Behavioral Services” on the back of my Anthem card, but not the “Behavioral Health” that I apparently used to have. “Do you not have ‘Behavioral Health’ anymore?” she asked. “I don’t know, I guess not… whatever it says on the card.” She kept pointing at the name on the file sheet and asking the same question. I didn’t know how to say I don’t know any more clearly, I’ve had the same insurance for 16 years. But she says it again as she points to the name in a sort of clandestine way, as if the walls had ears or I was supposed to say the magic word and the duck would come down and I would win $50. So again I said “I … don’t … know.  I … guess … not” and threw in a “if … you … say … so” for good measure. She gave up on me and said they would figure something out. “Oh good,” I thought, “so I don’t have to go to insurance school and find out the difference between two names with “Behavioral” in them and then get back to you with my findings?”

(Now this is strange: Several days later, I happened to look at my insurance card again and it says right on there, “Behavioral Health Services.” Am I losing my ever-lovin’ mind?)

At that point Dr. V. came out to get me, which… saved by the psychiatrist. In his office, I asked about the roundabouts. Someone had told me they had removed one of them. No, he said, they’re making more and more, and the reason is that they apparently cut down on fatal accidents. As if no one minds if they get into a nonfatal but pain-in-the-ass accident.

I hadn’t decided whether I would bring up the Problem-in-law (in a very special episode of “CSI: U.P.”), but it popped right up when I told him that the lorazepam worked really well for restless leg syndrome but I was needing to take a lot more of it lately. Of course he asked if I’ve been under unusual stress, and I said YES, then told him the story of my fall-by-brother-in-law as succinctly as possible. I only had 15 minutes to set the stage, identify the relationships, and tell what happened and the range and intensity of the feelings I’d been having about it ever since. He said that I’m “doing all the right things,” that I have a form of PTSD, that it’s OK to take the lorazepam as needed. PTSD sounds rather dramatic for what I went through, but it doesn’t have to entail active traumas; it’s about reliving the disturbing feelings over and over… watching a dog get hit by a car, running over a cat myself after failing to rescue a friend’s dog from the pound because they had already killed it. And it doesn’t have to fit anyone else’s definition of trauma. Being betrayed is slower-acting, but it affects all the organs and nerve endings, makes us question our perceptions and shake our trust. I think this is reflected in the dream I had shortly after the incident, when I was standing in the entryway of my childhood home and the basement (foundation) was completely gone and I questioned the stability of the spot where I stood. When I let my mind wander and don’t try to be completely rational, I think what happened has even wider application than this relationship, which I don’t miss at all. My brother who died of leukemia when he was 2 years old had the same name as my Other-in-law, and during my best times with MP I thought of him as a brother without the hyphenated suffix, the closest I would ever get to having a grown male sibling. R.I.P. Michael William McKenney.

I’ve since realized that, 2-3 months later, I have fewer thoughts about the incident itself but often have a generalized feeling of dread and nervousness, and I can’t pin down what I’m afraid of. I think it was a bigger deal than I thought at first (and at first I thought it was a very big deal). So I have all these emotions, but at least my intellect is glad that it was a serious enough offense that I don’t have to justify staying away from the No-in-law forever. Can an intellect be glad?

After Dr. V and the office people explained in great detail how to get back on the highway, I achieved the task easily. Somewhat encouraged by the session and no longer sleepy, I drove to Green Bay, had lunch at El Sarape, then drove the rest of the way home. I love that feeling of being physically tired and all I have to do is sink into my big chair with my kitties, my Big Book of 500 New York Times crossword puzzles, and a bag of peanut M&Ms, which I’ve been craving lately though I hadn’t thought they were “worth the calories” for many years. Later, I looked up my psychiatrist on Facebook, found him, and messaged him that it was probably inappropriate to “friend” him but I wanted to thank him for his help. So I’m done being shrunk/evaluated/prescribed for another year. Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible for me, so I’m grateful to have a couple of good ones, and a nice guy with a fancy degree to keep an eye on me even though he’s so damn far away.

Oh, also. When I got home I took off my shirt to put on a fresh one, and there was a huge black BUG smashed on the back of it. I threw the disgusting thing down the toilet right away and didn’t get a really close look, but I thought it looked something like a combination wasp, fly, and June bug, super-sized. It freaked me out. I wondered when and where it had got on me, and why no one had noticed it and told me about it. I was reminded of Jung’s patient who was telling him about dreaming of a golden scarab when a scarab beetle rapped on the windowpane, and I thought, Is this gross giant bug a symbol of my inner self? I couldn’t get a nice ladybug? Oh well, I thought, as I settled in with my peanut M&Ms and other comforts and forgot all about the bug, and my day, and had many pleasant dreams.


the local nooz

(source: my niece)

Police called to high school again. My niece, L, came to clean my house the other morning, and she was upset. Two years ago, her then 15-year-old son had been caught up in a hostage crisis at his school. One of his best friends had brought in several guns and had kept the class from leaving for several hours. Eventually, the police burst in and the friend shot himself to death. This day was different, but still scary. There was an unknown “situation” in a house right across from the school, and 7 police cars were there, several of the officers outside with guns drawn. L couldn’t reach her son on his cell phone, and she couldn’t help thinking the worst. I went online and found a small news item about it on the website of a Green Bay TV station. The school had gone into lockdown, and finally all the students (just under 1,000) were bused to a college field house a couple miles down the road. Within an hour or so, the police had taken someone into custody, and all was well that ended well. L’s son sent her a text saying that they hadn’t been allowed to bring their cell phones with them to the field house and that he thought the whole thing was “no big deal.”

We are rising up! L also told me that her 21-year-old nephew had gone to Walmart the night before to buy a camouflage cap and gloves. The woman at the checkout counter asked him if he was buying them for hunting or just to keep warm. He said for hunting. Then she went into a diatribe about hunters and how could he kill those poor animals, did he need to prove he was a big strong man? She continued in this vein for awhile. This was a Walmart employee speaking to a customer. And of course Walmart sells hunting equipment. The boy was so taken aback (and probably not the most refined person in the world; I don’t know him) that he told her to “shut the fuck up.” Then the woman behind him in line lit into him about using “that kind of language” and joined in the employee’s attack on him for killing animals. She actually said this: “Why don’t you buy your meat at the store like everybody else?” (Does she think they grow it in the back room?) She said she was a member of PETA, that there was a PETA chapter here in town, and they were going to “rise up” and stop the hunters. L is married to a gentle man who comes from a long line of farmers and hunters. They raise chickens and turkeys, and in hunting season he takes the two boys (11 and 17) out with him; both boys have guns, know how to use them and how to care for them. They eat everything they kill. I’m not thrilled at the thought of Bambi or Bambi’s family members getting shot, but I have long since made peace with my hypocrisy. My meat comes from the store in a plastic-wrapped package, and I don’t want to think about what it is or where it came from. My niece actually “appreciates” this (that I own up to my hypocrisy). I have a visceral dislike of PETA, dating from their attempts to storm the labs at UCSF and release the laboratory animals. I think their “concern” for animals (with no thought of consequences, apparently) is a bit misplaced. Years ago I read a quote by a young man who thought that the world would be better off without his taking up oxygen and other scarce resources. This is extreme in a way that my cohorts in the ‘60s—at least those who didn’t blow themselves up accidentally—could never have matched.

Fowl play. And now for the lighter side of the news. L was bringing bread out to the chickens, whom she calls her “girls,” and one of the girls grabbed a loaf of French bread right out of her hand and took off with it. The girls are not an egalitarian society, it’s very much every hen for herself. The chicken was holding the loaf sideways in her mouth (the way a flamenco dancer holds a rose between her teeth), but one side was farther out than the other, so her head and body were tilted to that side trying to hold on to her ill-gotten gain. Hence, she was slower moving than the other chickens, so they quickly caught up with her and started pecking at the bread from both ends. But this gal was out for bear and not inclined to share. In a last, desperate burst of speed, she outran the other hens, turned the corner around the barn, and was never seen again. She did leave a trail of bread crumbs, but that’s another story. The moral? Don’t count your chickens before they snatch.

(This story is true up to the part where the bread-wielding chicken got away.)


I paint, I am; do I dare say “therefore”?

Terry and I were talking about painting (as we are wont to do), and marveling at what our lives would have been like if we had never found it. Neither of us could imagine it. This intuitive, non-result-oriented way of painting used to be called “the painting experience,” but it occurred to me that it goes way beyond the experience and touches into our actual existence. It cannot be done half-heartedly, or from a false premise. It is common to try to avoid facing ourselves, but painting with even a partially opened heart takes us to all the necessary places. So in that way, painting is existential.

Another thing: There has been a painting diaspora, if that’s not too charged a term: the distribution of one’s paintings to friends and maybe even gallery owners. I’ve given away several and did not keep accurate records. But they’re out there somewhere: with Diane, Barb, Diane, Susan, Peggy, Terry, Alice, Kathy, Polly, and probably others I can’t remember. It’s sort of like putting a message in a bottle, to be retrieved perhaps at someone’s garage sale someday, when we all have passed on. The price will be minimal, but in this way our work will carry on in the world without us… very much the way it carries on in our own homes and in our hearts. It’s not about “the painting,” as we always say, but I’ve seen the reactions of some… how shall I say… regular people who encounter our “footprints” as it were, and I think there can be some value in that, maybe even inspiration. When I offered Barb her choice of paintings several years ago, she took all the photos I had lent her and enlarged them on a machine at Walmart. A woman in line behind her saw them and exclaimed at how wonderful they were. I’m not braggin’, just sayin’. I think everyone is capable of responding to honest expression, to true passion and creativity, and there seems to be little of that in the art world, and less in the department store art whose sole function is not to clash with one’s furniture.

Speaking of value and inspiration, or their opposite, somehow the now-famous painting of Jesus that was “repaired” by the woman in Italy is grotesque to me… not because of the loss of one more religious painting in the world, but the image itself, I don’t know what it is about it, but it’s an abomination. I’m not going to reproduce it here, you can look it up.


new doctor

Did I tell you that my wonderful doctor, Dr. T, up and left his practice? No one, not even his staff, seems to know the why and the wherefore. Soon after that happened, my wonderful dentist, Dr. A, was out for 6 weeks with some sort of shoulder injury. Could it be? Did both docs take off together like Thelma and Louise, and only one returned? No, probably not. But I thought, Are they all going to abandon me?? I’ve had 2 dentists (whom I’d been seeing for years) and at least 2 doctors retire on me while I was under their care—one went crazy, one had debilitating back pain, one was old, and one wanted to give up doctoring to grow roses and visit France. (She’s the one who went oui, oui, oui all the way home.)

So Barb found another doctor, a woman who’s bright and peppy. Before we met her, I saw her picture, she’s a little on the heavy side, and I insensitively asked Barb if she chose her because she wouldn’t come down so hard on her about her weight. But I was thinking about myself, really, because I’m definitely on a one-way train to don’t-bother-saving-those-old-jeans-ville. I signed up with Dr. P too and liked her. But it seems doctoring has changed in recent years. Dr. T. told me I didn’t have to listen to any advice he gave me, and Dr. P asked me if I “wanted” a hearing test and a pap smear. (I think there are few worse combinations of words than “pap” and “smear.”) No thanks, I shrugged, and I waltzed out of my physical without even taking my clothes off. Well, no, that’s not true. Dr. P walked me through a “Welcome to Medicare!” questionnaire and told me that I could get a one-time free (!) EKG, so one of the nurses hooked me up and cardiographed me on the spot. I went in the following week for blood work. Later I’ll have to get a mammygram and an ultrasound of my abdominal aorta because I have very high levels of C-reactive protein. I used to edit papers about C-reactive protein and never dreamed it would mean anything to me personally.


hard times

From  9-20-12

[Mitt Romney] was born to a wealthy and powerful family. While his father was governor of Michigan, the son attended an elite boarding school. His father also paid for his undergraduate education and his graduate study at Harvard Business School. His father then bought the younger Romneys a beautiful house in Massachusetts, lending them $42,000 in the 1970s. “We stayed there seven years and sold it for $90,000, so we not only stayed for free, we made money,” Ann Romney noted in 1994.

The Romneys have described their early years as ones of real hardship, hardship they overcame through hard work—and income from stocks.

“They were not easy years. … [W]e moved into a $62-a-month basement apartment with a cement floor and lived there two years as students with no income…. Neither one of us had a job, because Mitt had enough of an investment from stock that we could sell off a little at a time,” Ann Romney told the Boston Globe in 1994. “We had no income except the stock we were chipping away at. We were living on the edge….”
I love that humble-braggy admission: “no income except the stock we were chipping away at,” as if they were valiantly subsisting on a block of government cheese.

Most of us can look back and remember the hard times, the lean years. My family of 5 lived on $66/month in the 1950s. If it hadn’t been for the veterans disability benefits and a fake Santa who came by once a year with a sack full of toys and canned food, I don’t know what we would have done. I paid for my entire education through work-study jobs, loans, and scholarships. The loans (which I promptly paid off) came from the government, but the scholarships came from MSU and the Michigan Bankers Association (I won an essay contest). I think I can safely say that I earned every penny.

A few years ago, there was an article in the New York Times (2-17-08) about the former Plaza Hotel in New York City, which was being transformed into condominiums. Few of the buyers had moved in yet, and a woman who bought two apartments in the building—including a one-bedroom for $5.8 million and a two-bedroom (price not stated) “for themselves, their children and the grandchildren”—was bemoaning the fact that it’s hard to make new friends when there are so few people about.

Ms. Ruland said meeting people is hard simply because it’s hard to tell the residents from the help. One neighbor cast his eyes away from her one day when she walked through the lobby with a mop and bucket. [my emphasis] She said she felt like telling him her family owns two apartments in the Plaza.

Ms. Ruland and her mother hope their new neighbors at the Plaza will share their interests.

… And presumably their stock tips.

I sure hope that poor, I mean rich, woman was able to track down the neighbor who saw her in such a compromising position so she could regain her proper status in his eyes. Maybe she should henceforth transport her cleaning supplies through the common (haha) areas while wearing a ball gown and red ruby slippers.

Where I come from, working with a mop and bucket is nothing to be ashamed of. Though my family were not cleaners, they worked in a hospital cafeteria, a foundry, a furniture factory, the service department at Montgomery Ward, and similar low-paying jobs. Work was hard. When I was 16, my mother made me apply for a job as the society page writer at the Menominee Herald-Leader, for which I could not have been less suited. I didn’t get the job, to my great relief. She also drove me around to apply at all the factories in town, including Prescott’s foundry where my father had worked before he got sick. I was aiming a tad higher and hoped to get a summer job at Spies [pronounced Speez] Library, but they hired another girl from my class who was surely less qualified than me but not likely to leave town for a glamorous dorm room downstate. So my fate, if I hadn’t gotten the financial aid to cover my years at MSU, could have been far worse. Is there a parallel “me” out there who is getting all dolled up in her poodle skirt and fuzzy pink sweater and making the rounds of all the high society doin’s? Or another who is tending a hot furnace or inspecting machine parts on an assembly line, then stopping for a cold one at Dino’s Pine Knot after work and stumbling home half drunk to my put-upon wife and 3 kids… oh wait, I’m getting a little carried away here. I don’t think I would have survived the factory job, but you can see for yourself that I would have had a shot at hobnobbin’ with the upper Upper Peninsula classes by searching this site for my “society column.”

My mother was naïve about class. She joined the AAUW (American Association of University Women) because she loved to read (and she had, by then, graduated from college), and discovered that the women there were gossipy snobs. In a way, her naivety helped me, because I was raised to believe that I could do anything I wanted based on merit. I have since learned that there’s a lot of non-merit-based careering going around, but I stayed out of that pool by being proficient as an editor and working in academia and publishing. I did it my way, like Frank S. and Pookie M. And I’m proud of that.


(this is already dated material, but whatever)

I finally got to sit outside on my back porch…

…drink my coffee, and watch the birds. It was too hot all summer, and now it’s verging on too cold. But I got out my winter jacket and was able to enjoy the sunshine, the brisk breeze, and the comings and goings of birds, squirrels, and one brave chipmunk. I had bought safflower seeds for the first time, and darned if the cardinals didn’t figure it out and descend on my yard within a day. How did they know??

On the porch I sit tucked into the corner where no one can see me unless they come looking. I’m mainly looking at grass and trees, though I can see part of a neighbor’s garage across the way. I live in town, but the only sounds I hear are branches swishing, birdies chirping, and the tinkle of a large chime that hangs on my porch. I share the space with a wasp’s nest and its occupants. I keep thinking I should get some poison and spray them dead, but they don’t bother me so why go all commando on them.

There’s a common complaint, “Is this all there is?” But sitting here, I think instead, “How is it that there is even more than this?” If this were all there is, I could easily sit here for eternity. Just keep the birds coming and the coffee flowing. (Do they let you have caffeine in the afterlife?) Like the handmade sign on the way north from Green Bay that asks, “How will you spend eternity?” and the Japanese movie I told you about in the last ‘zine (After Life), it occurs to me that I could choose this moment—or all such moments condensed into one continually renewing one, like an endless seamless loop—for my eternal repeating experience. I’ve had more excitement in my life, more fun, more intensity, more feelings of love and connection, but there is something so completely fulfilling about the birds, the trees, the warmth, the coffee, the breeze…. I’m not rejecting the human element, I just feel most myself when I’m alone. And somehow it seems that all the more intense emotional depths I’ve experienced would inform that quiet reverie-cum-birdsong. So there wouldn’t be a lot of thought involved, just direct observation and pleasurable contemplation. Nothing would be required, no action, no memory, no words, no math or science, just simple existence through and through.


(Mary McKenney)


mary’zine random redux: #6 August 2000

January 28, 2010

I’m having a really hard time writing this issue. I have lots of ideas, images, some great analogies, but they’re scattered around my brain like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle—where the puzzle is of a polar bear in a snowstorm—or, more appropriately, a can of worms that someone has unwisely opened and now worms, worms everywhere. I’m blaming the chaos on my current state of caffeine deficiency, but I’ll be really depressed if I get through the withdrawal period and still can’t rub two thoughts together to make a fire.

As everyone knows, the way to start a jigsaw puzzle is to find and snap together all the straight-edged pieces so you at least have a frame of the picture. That’s supposed to be the easy part. But unfortunately, life doesn’t come with straight-edged pieces—or in a box with a picture of itself on the cover, for that matter—so I’m just going to have to wing it.


In what universe is caffeine not a drug? —Jon Carroll, S.F. Chronicle

I’m on the coffee wagon. I mean, not the latte and bagel kind, but the metaphorical kind you fall off of. The other night, I was sitting here at the computer at 12:30 a.m., feeling ridiculous. I tried to go one whole day without ingesting caffeine in any form, and I almost made it. But I spent the day nodding off in front of “Oral and Pharyngeal Reflexes in the Mammalian Nervous System”; taking frequent breaks and three (3) naps; growing a headache as the day progressed, until I couldn’t stand it anymore—knowing relief was as close as the little green plastic bottle on my desk—and swallowed two Excedrin at 9:00 p.m. (Excedrin contains 65 mg of caffeine.) Of course, my headache disappeared, I became euphoric, and I was wide awake in the middle of the night wondering if there’s such a thing as Caffeine Anonymous.

I’ve tried quitting before—usually when my stomach is bothering me and I’ve narrowed the list of culprits down to one. The withdrawal is brutal… the headaches, the depression, the logy feeling that lingers all day…. So before I know it, I’m sneaking an Excedrin or two for the caffeine hit. I say “sneaking” even though there’s no one here to care—Pookie, knowing which side his cat food is buttered on, turns a blind eye to my drug habit. But when I’m falling asleep at my desk, or the headache is driving me crazy, or I don’t want to live, I have to concoct a good enough rationalization to drown out the little voice that says, “If you stick it out, you’ll feel better eventually.”

It’s the same thing with food. The part of me that thinks I shouldn’t have the forbidden fruit (+sugar+pastry) is easily overpowered. I’m like the classic 99-pound weakling on the beach. But instead of the bully kicking sand in my face, he comes along with a dessert cart. “Oh no!” I squeal, “Don’t make me eat that cherry pie!” And so I get to put on my little show—“I really shouldn’t!”—before succumbing to the inevitable.

I’ve been known to come up with a pretty good rationalization—“If I don’t eat (drink/take) it now, I’ll just keep thinking about it, and I know I’m going to eat (drink/take) it anyway, so I might as well get it over with so I can get some work done.” What’s the rebuttal to that? There is none, except “I really shouldn’t.” So I’ll say, “Good one, Mare!,” and it actually makes me feel better about what I’m about to do. I know it’s a trick, but I’m half-convinced in spite of myself. And half is plenty.

I’m not the only one who’s ever thought of the Excedrin solution. One day I was with a friend, nutritionally correct in most things, who asked her kids after lunch, “Who wants an Excedrin?” I laughed my head off (OK, I smiled), and she looked a little miffed, as if she thought I was judging her, but in fact I was just relieved to know I was not the only one who used Excedrin as a pick-me-up. I wonder about the kids, though. Aren’t parents usually trying to calm them down?

So one day I’m sitting there with the Excedrin bottle in front of me, weighing my options, and I’m not sure if I should take a whole one, in case it bothers my stomach. My compromise is to take half—which is like deciding to eat half a cookie, the ultimate in self-delusion—can the other half be far behind? So I tap one lonely little pill with the big E on it out of the bottle onto my desk, and with a paring knife I attempt to cut it in half, hoping not to (a) crush it into a powder or (b) send pieces of it careening around the room. At that moment I feel two things. One: I am every bit as creepy and desperate as someone shooting up heroin with trembling fingers. And two: I am ridiculous, centering my addiction drama on a substance that is socially acceptable and readily available in liquid, pill, or capsule form. Good thing I haven’t had much exposure to the hard stuff. WILL YOU JUST TAKE THE DAMN PILL?, the bully cries out in frustration. So I do.


It all started with my mother. (And what didn’t?) She saw coffee drinking as a sign of maturity—so much so that the switch from milk to coffee as one’s primary beverage denoted a coming-of-age, a kind of Lutheran bat mitzvah.

From the time I went off to college, my mother would ask me every time I came home, “Do you drink coffee yet?” I’d say no, and she would sigh; what a disappointment I was. Of course I didn’t mention that I was drinking scotch on the rocks and smoking marijuana on a regular basis—oh yes, I’m an adult, substance-ingestion-wise, don’t you worry about that, Mom.

When I finally took the plunge into caffeine dependency, in my late 20s, I was pleased to make the announcement on my next visit home: “YES, I’ll have coffee!” My mother heaved a sign of relief—her little girl had become a woman at last. That’s when I discovered that her coffee was so weak as to be undrinkable. I took to leaving the house early in the morning on some pretext so I could go down to the donut shop for my daily fix. The coffee was pretty pedestrian by Starbucks’ standards, but it did the job. And to this day, I prefer coffee shop coffee to the fancy stuff. You can take the girl out of the U.P….

Come to think of it, I gave up hard liquor and marijuana years ago, but the bearded, turbaned man on the red Hills Bros. can still calls to me. Mom would be proud.


So… I was going crazy, playing these little games with myself—I’ll just have 0.75 of an Excedrin today, or two-thirds of a cup of coffee, or some other ridiculous copout, and I finally gave myself over to my higher power—my therapist, J. (Just kidding, J!) And she made a practical suggestion. Usually, I hate practical suggestions; I’d rather analyze the problem to death. But I was willing to listen when I heard the magic words, “This will keep you from getting headaches.” The suggestion was to drink green tea until I get through the withdrawal period. I knew I needed more help than that, so I pushed her to be more directive with me. My fantasy was that she would march over to my house and take the coffee mug or the Excedrin bottle right out of my hand if she suspected I was cheating. J was not about to play Attila the Hun with me, but she agreed that she would like me to quit and that she’d be disappointed if I didn’t give the green tea a fair trial, but it wouldn’t affect our relationship. I latched on to that word, “disappointed.” The desire not to disappoint (the mother figure) is a powerful motivator.

So I embarked upon my withdrawal. The tea helped, but of course, the little bit of caffeine I got from it didn’t work any magic. As J had warned, “It will keep you from getting headaches, but it won’t make you HIGH.” And yet, to me, HIGH is the whole point! I wonder if people who drink this stuff for pleasure have ever tried coffee.


Making a cup of green tea, I stop the war. —Stephen Levine

In his book Healing into Life and Death, Stephen Levine has a chapter called “Stopping the War,” by which he means being present in each moment rather than waiting for the next thing to happen. “Waiting is war. Impatience is war. The moment is unsatisfactory, and there is no peace to be found.”

He describes the act of making a pot of green tea without waiting, without wanting something more than this moment:

Watching, noticing, tasting the desire for tea as the hand extends to the teapot. Feeling the cold metal of the teapot handle in the warm flesh of the hand. Feeling the texture of the handle…. Feeling the floor beneath your feet as you walk to the sink.

He goes on like this for two pages.

…feeling the changes in the musculature of the arms as the pot is tilted toward the cup….

By this point I want to scream. This is not how making green tea makes me feel. After all, I’m only in it for the 25 mg of caffeine. I’m caught ‘twixt the words of spiritually unredemptive coffee and life-affirming, war-stopping tea, wanting the one, dutifully sipping the other, but resisting the precious awareness of every bend of knee or touch of metal on flesh on bone….

Finally, he asks, “Reading this story, do you stop the war, or do you continue it?” And I say, “Damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead!”


I can resist everything except temptation. —Oscar Wilde

My twin “addictions”—food and caffeine—go together like–well, like pie and coffee. Maybe it’s stretching it to call them addictions—technically, caffeine doesn’t cause addiction, just dependency. And you do need food to live—but possibly not chocolate éclairs. But there’s some sort of compulsion going on here.

It makes me feel like a big weenie to be so lacking in willpower. Driving home from the supermarket, so many times I “come to” and realize that, whereas I went to the store to get, say bing cherries (a healthy snack), I have come out with a four-pack of Frappuccino, blackberry scones, and a bag of “99% fat-free “ (yeah, right) potato chips. What’s surprising about this is that I’m always surprised—astonished, really, that I could have such resolve on the way there and then just somehow gloss over the moment when my hand plucks up the brownie or the peanut butter cookie and plops it into my basket, while my eyes—silent co-conspirators with the hand—turn away like a security guard friendly to the local pickpockets. “Hm? What? How did those chocolate muffins get in there?”

This is denial at its best. This is denial as an art form. This is grabbing the Renoir right out from under the museum guard’s nose. This is ridiculous.

I try to tell myself in advance to be “present” during those moments of temptation, as though I could transform myself into a good little Buddhist and be just so gosh-darned self-aware that I wouldn’t even want those goodies anymore. (I saw a bumper sticker, “Do something that would make the Buddha happy,” and I thought, Would it make the Buddha happy if I refrained from eating anything fattening today? Didn’t think so.)

But telling myself to be present is like going into battle armed with a feather. I saw this with my own eyes one day when I witnessed the telltale moment. As I stood at the deli counter waiting for my quarter pound of ham to be sliced, my eyes drifted down to a dazzling array of individually wrapped desserts that looked up at me like—well, I was going to say, like kittens begging to be taken home from the shelter, each mewing and romping and competing for my attention—but no, their appeal was less innocent, more lascivious… moist hunks of carrot cake with their voluptuous, creamy white icing… deep-dish fruit pies spilling their luscious juices out from between golden latticework crusts… lemon bars so thickly yellow, so purely lemony that I started salivating on the spot—and I watched myself pick up—yes, the lemon bar—and drop it into my basket. As I did so, I said to myself, “Yes, that’s how it works. The hand just puts it in the basket. Nothing could be simpler.” No guilt, no rationalization, just a bow to the inevitable. My kingdom come, my will be done, on earth as it is in Andronico’s.

So self-awareness hasn’t helped me yet. And policing myself definitely doesn’t work; it’s just playing one side off the other, and I have a feeling the criminal mind thrives on the game of cops and robbers.

I think it must be the reptilian part of my brain—we all have one, don’t look at me like that—that is responsible. It’s so old, so primitive, so “Me want cookie NOW” as it defies the more civilized neural add-ons, the Johnny-come-latelies with their grandiose ideas about deferred gratification. What’s deferred instead is the inevitable moment when She Who Made the Decision Not To Eat Dessert Today wakes up and wonders, “What happened?”

I was in the grocery store the other day and saw a mother and daughter in the coffee and tea aisle. The mother was standing in front of a huge display of Slim Fast (located conveniently across from the cookies). The daughter asked, “You drink that stuff?” and the mother said, “I’m going to try it.” I looked at her. She must have been a size 3—or a 2, if they have 2’s. She needed Slim Fast like I need a hole in the head. But it made me realize I’m not the only one who experiences grocery shopping as positively primeval—all those deep cookie instincts aligned against the forces of self-deprivation, American-style.

My mother looked down on alcoholics, as if their weakness before the bottle were a moral failing. She never made the connection with her own weakness before a lemon meringue pie. I make the connection but wonder what good it does me.


When I saw J again, 2 weeks into my caffeine withdrawal, I fully expected her to praise and commiserate with me. I didn’t really know where the conversation would go from there, but my agenda was definitely similar to that of a cat who brings home a dead mouse and drops it lovingly at the feel of her mistress.

To my surprise, J had bigger fish for me to fry; she had never cared that much about the caffeine drama in the first place. I was the one who had pushed her to play Mommy. She matter-of-factly took in the information that I had lasted the 2 weeks, but she was more interested in what lay beneath the surface. She wanted me to see that my energy doesn’t come from outside, from a substance, that there are other ways to get it—breathing, movement, etc. I was mostly into being a victim—so tired all the time now, blah blah blah. She was challenging my belief that I was nothing without the artificial high. And I was all: “Leave me alone, I’m going to be depressed for the rest of my life. If only I could drink COFFEE, waaaaah.”

After the session, as I was winding my way tearfully through Albany to the freeway, I childishly planned how I was going to go straight home and make a pot of coffee. “Oh, she doesn’t care, does she? Well, I’ll show HER.” I dimly realized that this was ridiculous, but I let myself indulge in my little revenge fantasy. A lot can happen between Berkeley and San Rafael.

Sure enough—somewhere over the Richmond-San Rafael bridge, I got it. It really isn’t about the caffeine! All the drama I manufacture around substances is a diversionary tactic that has no value. The point isn’t the means by which I run away from myself, it’s the fact that I run away from myself.

When I focus all my attention on the battle between indulgence and deprivation—the elusive high and its inevitable aftermath of penance—I can’t see where my energy really comes from, where desire and meaning come from.

I wanted caffeine to be the substitute for my own life energies. When that didn’t work anymore, I wanted J to embalm me in her unconditional positive regard. I wanted her to take away the pain, I wanted her to stop the war. I didn’t want to see myself as the kamikaze pilot of my own life.

We’re in green tea territory now.

And yet—as soon as I got home—I made a pot of coffee. My motive was no longer to spite J; I just had a dim feeling that I needed to test my insights. You could argue that a purer test would have been to do without, but too bad—you weren’t there. I drank one cup, and I got my long-awaited “high,” but I knew even as I was feeling the wired energy erupt in my veins—It’s not about this! It’s just a physiological thing!—what it does to me when I drink it, how I feel when I don’t, but it’s not the truth about my life. I have more important things to think about! This drama is not worthy of me! Imagine if Shakespeare wrote all his plays about whether to have a cup of coffee or not and had no time left to be or not to be!


Well I won’t have to chop no wood, I can be bad or I can be good, I can be any way that I feel, one of these days. —Emmy Lou Harris

It’s not as if this insight gave me an instantaneous feeling of peace and purpose, but sometimes the war slows down a bit. Midmorning, I take a break from my work—a paper about hospital statistics written by an Austrian doctor (you haven’t lived…)—and sit out on the sunny patio in a lawn chair with my feet up, drinking my tea and watching Pookie roll on his back or nibble leaves. At times, the scent of honeysuckle or a whiff of the ocean fills all four of our nostrils, and we both put our noses up in the air, catching the perfumey breeze. Pookie occasionally hunkers down by the fence, straining to see under it, as though calculating how much dirt he’d have to displace to make his escape (a lot). These moments of grace are rare, but when they come, I try to enjoy them. Try to keep from hunkering down under my own (self-created) fence, plotting my own escape. Try to make the Buddha happy.

parallel what?

Did you see the article in the paper about the new theory in physics? I was too lazy to cut it out, and now it’s gone to recycling—but the idea was that there are parallel universes next to ours that are sort of folded over one another like a ham sandwich (??? I distinctly remember the ham sandwich part—of course—but I’m not sure how the metaphor works). All these universes exist just nano-somethings away from us, but we can’t perceive them.

This comes pretty close to some of my own theories, if I do say so myself.

The most chilling—or thrilling—part of the article was that we might all be on this side of an infinitesimally thin membrane that separates us (doing our innocent grocery shopping in a clean, well-lighted place for food) from the bottom of the ocean floor of a completely alien universe. My heart practically leaped out of my chest when I read that. To me this is scary-exciting and a lot more believable than little green men with big heads flying around in saucers.

The physicist quoted in the article seemed to think that this theory, if true, is on a par with humans finding out the sun doesn’t orbit the earth, that we are not the center of the universe, but indeed even smaller and less significant than we thought. But I have a different take on it. The idea of these ham-sandwich universes makes me feel BIG, like I’m an integral part of something massively weird and strange and powerful—like a surfer who may look like a meaningless dot at the mercy of the huge waves but who embodies that power and mystery and is energized by it.

In fact, I’m getting my “high” right now from contemplating that mystery, from writing about it. It’s a feeling of elation that comes from way down deep. (Do you think every cell has its own universal counterpart of cellular ham sandwichness?)

Without the caffeine crutch, I feel like I’m scrabbling along on the ocean floor of my own weird universe—but it’s my universe, it’s my ham to some unimaginable parallel slice of bread—the universe(s) encompassed in a food metaphor, I love it!


You don’t really think I’m going to put all those puzzle pieces together at the end here, do you? The magician pulls the rabbit out of a hat, but you don’t ask him to stuff it back in. The can of worms, the raging battlefield, the coffee, the food, Mom, my relationship with J, the universal deli—I mean, dilemma— Stop me before I metamorphize again, I mean metaphorize. I’m out of control, it’s true. The can of worms I mentioned early on is spilling in all directions. And as Hemingway said, if a can of worms is opened on page 1, the worms had better be dispersed by the end of the story. Actually, he was talking about a shotgun, but I’m sure it’s the same principle.

Well, it’s not going to happen. It’s all worm soup at this point. (Though I must interject that our physicist friend John told us the worm was the first creature to have a heart—precursor of our own—so we owe an enormous debt to our squiggly brothers and sisters.) There’s no grand snapped-together puzzle or theory that will finally vindicate and explain our lives. I love explanations, but they don’t help me live in my own wormy heart.

I have reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland. —Paul Simon

I don’t know if we die and meet up with the old folks in the light at the end of the tunnel, or we slip through the nano-thin veil and join the new world order of a whole different universe. Regardless of our final destination, I suspect we don’t have to be thin or caffeine-free to go there. And if Graceland is right here, right now, I’d better get to work on stopping that damn war.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux #22: March-April-May-June 2002

January 2, 2010

“Such an intimate style, wavering between the incisive and the narcissistic….”

—said of CNN’s Aaron Brown, in the New York Times

Amazing, mysterious, bizarre, touching things always happen when you paint for several days in a row. By day 7 you’ve lost all sense of scale: the big and the small, the trivial and the life-changing, blend together like—

Barbara interrupts my intense scribbling. “No, no no! Go back to your painting!” With arm outstretched, she points to the painting room like Moses directing his people into the Red Sea.

I try to resist. “But the words are coming! This is the same process only in words!”

She cannot be moved. “The process is happening in the painting! The source is there! You’re trying to capture it! The words will wait!” Forget Moses, she has the force of authority of God Himself expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden. I tell her this, and she says she feels more like one of the ghosts in the Scrooge story. The Ghost of Painting Present, I guess.

I know the intensity has to be lived before it can be shared, but in this moment it wants to burst out of me in words, not images. She’s right, I want to capture it before it can escape.

Reluctantly, I return to my painting. “This is killing me!,” I cry, not overdramatizing one bit.

And then I go on to have an incredible afternoon painting my family as real and true as I have ever painted them. But the jury’s still out on whether the words have waited for me.


It’s been a long time, eh? When people ask what happened to the ‘zine, all I can say is, “It’s really quite interesting, but part of what happened is that I can’t write the ‘zine anymore, so I can’t tell people about it!” But I’m feeling stirrings in my writerly loins again, so here we go.

I was going to begin by saying “Long story short…,” but I doubt that very much. In the February issue (#21; not yet available online), I mentioned that I was so busy with work that I could only crank out a few ‘zine pages. But I still had the urge to do it, so it was fine. You can always find time to do what you really want. But when March came around and I thought about starting the next issue, I realized I was feeling kind of down, and had been for a while. The Zoloft didn’t seem to be working anymore. This was really disheartening, and I felt like an idiot for having had such high expectations. I thought, maybe it’s like a relationship—it starts out really great and then one day you wake up and realize the honeymoon’s over. Reality is always a downer, I should know that by now!

So the next time I saw my psychiatrist, I complained about how the Zoloft was no longer working. She had been trying for months to find the right combination of drugs so that I wouldn’t be so drowsy during the day. (Excessive napping—my cross to bear.) Now she thought we’d have to switch to a different SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor). She assured me that there were “lots of new drugs in the pipeline,” and I imagined the pipeline as a tube in her office, maybe set up on an IV pole right next to the couch, so I could keep sucking up mood-altering chemicals until I felt good again.

At the end of the session, as she was writing out a new prescription, I looked out the window as a new thought began dimly to form. I said, “But you know… I’m not as anxious as I used to be.” And that’s when I saw that what I’d labeled “depression” or “the Zoloft not working” was just the absence of anxiety. The feeling was so unfamiliar that I didn’t recognize it!

This made sense to Dr. P. too, so we decided I would stay on “Vitamin Z” for a while longer. Immediately, I felt the change in my veins, or wherever you feel things like that. I wasn’t doomed, I wouldn’t have to start over with a new drug and new side effects. The letdown I’d been feeling had been about missing something all right, but the something I was missing was anxiety.


My life seemed to change overnight. I started noticing all the ways that I wasn’t anxious anymore. The more I noticed, the better I felt. I was able to rest in the present moment, Be Here Now, instead of feeling two steps ahead of myself, as if there was somewhere I had to get (what my father would have called “going nowhere fast”). Subjectively, I had a lot more time.

One day in therapy with J, I was trying to explain the change, and she asked how I felt in my body. I focused my attention there, and all of a sudden I felt completely unself-conscious, as if my center was truly down in the center of my body instead of up in my chest, throat, and head. As much as I love and trust J, it’s always been hard for me to sit across from her for an hour and be the focus of attention, especially since she’s always watching for clues to my somatic state. I’ll make a gesture—a shrug, a wince, a tapping of my fingers—and she’ll say, “Do that again—but slow it down.” But on this day, I lost that sense of discomfort completely. I often worry about what I’ll talk about in therapy, but that day it didn’t matter. We were just there together. It was like being weightless, free of emotional gravity. J could feel the change in me and immediately went to that place in herself. We sat there grinning at each other, and I looked around the room in amazement as if I had discovered a new world (or as if I were stoned, if you really want to know). The phone rang, and she got up to turn it off. When she sat down again, she said, “Try walking around, it’s really something.” So I got up and took a few steps around the office. When I sat down, I felt the movement settling, like the “snow” in a snow globe that gets shaken and then falls gently back to earth. J said that’s exactly how it felt to her, too. It was amazing to me that she could “go there” with me, especially since she wasn’t feeling well that day. Actually, it reminded me of how I feel after painting sometimes, when it doesn’t matter what I say and I can just sit silently with other people.

Then I spotted some rubber balls in the corner and asked her if she wanted to play catch. So we tossed a ball back and forth, feeling the movement in our chests and shoulders, comparing bodily notes. I started throwing the ball up in the air and catching it, and then I stood up and bounced it on the floor and against the walls. Oops, almost knocked over that vase. I felt so free, it was so easy to move, to invent, to be spontaneous. I didn’t even have to talk! J said she’d never seen me like that, and I had to agree it was a first.

What struck me the most was seeing that “being free” isn’t about floating aimlessly, without anchor or boundary, it’s about being who you are. It’s easy to retort, “Who else could you be?,” but the truth is, a lot of us find it easier to play a role or to guard the Fort Knox of our true selves than to just be, for fear of being overwhelmed or overtaken—or of revealing ourselves to be as inadequate as we sometimes feel.


A few weeks before (when I thought I was depressed), J had urged me to “find a cause in the world,” and I had uttered the shameful truth, “I’m not really interested in the world.” But now I had spontaneous urges to follow up on things I would once have stuffed in the “someday” file. I subscribed to the international magazine Granta and to the Sunday New York Times. I stopped reading fiction. Spent $200 in 2 weeks at Cody’s, poring over the nonfiction shelves and coming up with books about psychobiology, Buddhism, mathematics (geometry morphing into particle physics—who knew?), the class system in America, and true stories from NPR’s National Story Project. Suddenly I was more fascinated by the real than by the made-up worlds in novels. This was not some self-improvement project—such projects are doomed because they come from the belief that you need to be a “better person,” whatever that is. It’s the same principle I learned years ago in painting, to go where your interest is.

Of course, some of my interest in “the world” was really interest in my own brain chemistry. I was sitting in my car outside Dr. P.’s office one day, with about 10 minutes till my appointment, and I picked up a book I had brought along to pass the time. It was Going on Being by Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist who uses Buddhist teachings in his practice. I was interested in his perspective, because for a spiritually semi-evolved (or is that self-involved) person like myself, one who shares the Buddha’s Enneagram number, no less, the drug-taking initially raised all sorts of questions about self-identity. Who’s the “real me”? If this is my brain on drugs, who am “I”? Where does the serotonin stop and I begin? Am I my depression, my anxiety? Who is it who suffers from these symptoms, and who is it who is relieved of the suffering by a pill?

So I started reading the Introduction, “How People Change,” and almost immediately I was plunged into a story about a woman, “searching for a spiritual life,” who was “suspicious of the role of psychiatric medications in today’s culture. It seemed like some kind of brave new world to have mood-altering drugs so readily available.” But this woman, Sally, “had been plagued with chronic feelings of anxiety and depression for much of her adult life, and despite a healthy investment in psychotherapy she still felt that there was something the matter with her.”

Sally had been taking a small dose of an antidepressant—Zoloft!—for several weeks and was

…finding that she felt calmer, less irritable, and dare she say, happier. She was planning on going to a two-week mediation retreat later that month and was wondering whether to stay on her medicine while she was there…. “Perhaps I should go more deeply into my problems while I’m away,” Sally questioned. She worried that the antidepressant would impede that process by making her problems less accessible to her.

[I’m trying not to quote the entire chapter, but it’s tempting.]

People who respond well to these antidepressants often… find… that they feel restored, healed of the depressive symptoms…. Less preoccupied with their internal states, they are freer to participate in their own lives, yet they often wonder if they are cheating. “This isn’t the real me,” they protest. “I’m the tired, cranky, no-good one you remember from a couple of weeks ago.” As a psychiatrist, I am often in the position to encourage people to question those identifications. Depressed people think they know themselves, but maybe they only know depression [my emphasis].

… The notion that we need to go more deeply into our problems in order to be healed is a prevalent one, and one that, as a therapist, I am sympathetic toward. Certainly ignoring the shadow side of our personalities can only lead to what Freud once called the return of the repressed. Yet it struck me that there was a remnant of American Puritanism implicit in Sally’s approach….

When people believe that they are their problems, there is often a desire to pick away at the self, as if by doing so they could expose how bad they really are. People think that if they could just admit the awful truth about themselves, they would start to feel better, almost as if they have to go to confession to be absolved of their sins. Going more deeply into our problems can be just another variant on trying to get rid of them altogether….

But to go more deeply into our problems is sometimes to go only into what we already know…. It can lead, at worst, to… a resigned negativity that verges on self-hatred…. I told [Sally] that at this point I felt she needed to come out of her problems, not go into them more deeply…. To be overwhelmed while on retreat would not be useful.

As a therapist influenced by the wisdom of the East, I am confident that there is another direction to move in such situations: away from the problems and into the unknown [my emphasis].

Reading this, I felt like a weight had been lifted from me. I was especially struck by the parallels with painting. People who understand that painting-for-process isn’t about “making art” often see it as a way to “work on their issues.” Indeed, we don’t shrink from the disturbing images that come up, but instead of identifying ourselves with them, we allow the act of painting to take us to a meditative level where we experience (not just “understand intellectually,” an oxymoron) that we are not that, we are not our problems. I had been exactly like “Sally” in thinking that if I wasn’t suffering I was “avoiding” or “cheating.” It was wonderful to get this point of view from a medical doctor who also has respect for the spirit.


Another change I noticed is that I felt more like giving. I packed up a box of books to ship to China and another box for the San Rafael Public Library. I checked out the Habitat for Humanity website to see about signing up for some hardhat action when they start building in Marin. I checked the Marin volunteers website, but the only thing that appealed to me was driving police cars to the repair shop at 6 a.m.; of course, I rejected that, partly because it was so early in the morning and partly because I couldn’t imagine driving a police car down Miracle Mile and coming upon a robbery in progress or having bloody or disoriented citizens lurch into the street, waving at me to stop and help them. (Do they have police cars that say “Not in Service”?)

I liked the idea of giving scholarships to poor kids, having been one myself. So I thought about donating to the Marin Scholarship Fund (there are plenty of poor kids here, despite the media hype about how rich the county is). Then I read an article about kids way up in northern California who don’t have many opportunities, and I thought, yeah, rural poor kids, having been one of those. Then the Obvious reached up and smacked me, and I realized I wanted to give a scholarship to my old high school in the U.P.! (U.P. = Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a virtually forgotten region of the country, known only to Ernest Hemingway and a few vacationing Chicagoans who like trees.) Believe me, this was a major turnabout. I had sworn for the last 30-some years that I would never have anything to do with that place again, but here I was, waking up to the awareness that there must still be kids back there who are smart and poor (and who want to be beatnik editors?) who need a ticket out. So I made inquiries through my sister, who teaches in the middle school in my hometown, and next year some lucky girl will be awarded a $1,000 scholarship, thanks to me and my newly un-reuptaken serotonin. Now I have to decide what to call it. It would be nice to rehabilitate the McKenney name around there, because most of the men on my father’s side were ne’er-do-wells, and my sisters got married and took their husbands’ names. So it’s up to the lesbian daughter to carry on the family name, if not the genetic line. (The genetics are marching on without me, and there’s nothing I can do about that.)


I’ve discovered that being emotionally healthy(er) is like having a lot of money, as in “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.” When you have greater resources—whether emotional or material—you have a foundation, a safety net, room to make mistakes, and enough abundance to think beyond survival. You can take a few losses and not go under.


If it appears that I’m giving all the credit to a chemical rather than to 20 years of process painting and 10 years of therapy, it’s because I’m amazed (note to self: dig out the thesaurus, quick!) by what feels like instantaneous change. Maybe it’s like the “overnight sensations” in the entertainment world who’ve been performing in obscurity for years and are suddenly “discovered.” In reality, I know that Zoloft is just the icing on the cake. The cake is therapy—or no, therapy has got to be the meat and potatoes. That would make painting the cake, Zoloft the ice cream… oh, never mind. The point is, it’s not that the drug is magic, it’s just that it helps clear away some of the emotional debris so that the real self, excavated and examined through the inner work, can emerge. People think these drugs put you in a mental state that’s like my image of Hawaii—beautiful but bland, same temperature all the time—when actually they put you wherever you already live, but with a clearer head.


But despite (or because of) my newfound emotional stability, I was dreading the 7 days of painting, partly because I never know what’s going to happen and that’s so uncomfortable, and partly because I wasn’t sure I would still have the desire or “ability” to paint. Although feeling better made me want to explore more, not less, I was afraid the painting urge might have gone the way of the writing urge, which seemed to have gone far, far away.

I had written the following to a friend who wanted to know what was up with the ‘zine:

I went to a new level with the Zoloft and am enjoying my life without the need/desire to share it in writing. Not to mention the fact that I’m having fewer neurotic reactions, which made up a large part of what I used to write about…. It’s weird, I’ve never felt like this. Like: Life is enough; you don’t have to prove anything or do anything special.

All well and good, but creativity is about going to the edge, pushing the envelope. What if my edges had been smoothed away? What if my envelope had already been sealed and mailed and was now gathering dust in a corner of the Dead Letter office?

After trying and failing to give J a complete news report on all my insights from the week, I realized I’m not a journalist, and so I will just write whatever I feel like and see where it goes (the driving principle of the mary’zine).

7 days in May

Day 1

Having spent most of my time since the last intensive by myself, I felt slightly overwhelmed by being with so many people in such an intimate setting. Checking out the people in the group, I was sure that several of them wanted something from me. And if someone wanted something from me, I had to give it. If someone had a problem, I had to fix it. I made a mental list of the things I felt responsible for: K’s silence. S’s self-hatred. G’s male ego. The feelings of everyone I like. The feelings of everyone I don’t like. Everyone’s lunch. (In my grandiosity, I thought I would be inundated by requests to go to lunch, but only from those who wanted something from me.) I was seeing how my mind works, and it was both repellent and fascinating, like Animal Planet during Shark Week.

My first painting was of me and J. We had been talking about ending therapy, and the thought not only made me sad—I couldn’t imagine giving up such an important relationship—but also (see above) I felt responsible for her feelings about coming to the end. When I went on to paint my mother, it was clear that my perceived responsibility for J’s (and everyone else’s) feelings was linked to my belief that it was up to me to make my mother happy, an almost impossible task. (Me and Tony Soprano.)

Then I painted a “monster” that I thought was going to be your everyday, normal monster (scary, dark, trying to get me), but it came out looking fearful and anxious—not threatening me but clinging to me—and I realized that the monster was indeed “my” fear and anxiety, now projected out of me in monster form. Seeing the monster outside of me, I had the insight that everyone I encounter is a form of me outside of me, and that the same is true for everyone else. We’re projecting our own shortcomings or idealizations onto one another all the time, so (psychologically) there is very little reality, just a lot of projected illusions walking around thinking that everything they see is real.


Here I want to give Bonnie credit for inspiring two possible titles for the book I may someday write about painting: In the Company of Monsters (the monsters in the painting, in one another, and in ourselves) and Radiant with Anguish, an apparent oxymoron that goes to the heart of why we paint—not to be in a constant state of distress, God forbid, but to go deeply inside ourselves where even fools fear to tread, and discover whatever is true there.

Day 2

Painted the “fabric of the universe.” Just so you know, the strands that make up the universe are interwoven like the potholders my sisters and I used to make, but they’re multicolored, not just red and white, blue and white, or green and white. I loved painting the “fabric,” but I had the strong feeling there was something on the other side that I couldn’t get to. I was stuck. I then painted several black figures and realized they were “sentries of the unknown,” blocking my way. I felt better just painting them. As M. Cassou used to say, “When you paint the wall, the wall comes down.”

Day 3

The sense of scale is beginning to blur. After an intense day of painting, I’m driving home and I see a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. It appears to say “Everybody Loves Firm Potato Brushes.” I go, ha-ha, that’s one of those things that turn out to be comically misread, like when “Change is in charge” was revealed to be “Charles is in charge.” So I come up behind the car at the next stop sign, where I’m able to read the bumper sticker clearly. It reads, and I quote, “Everybody Loses From Potato Bruises.” I am nonplussed, and believe me, I have never written or spoken that word before. My initial interpretation would work if the driver were a door-to-door potato brush salesman. But what does the real message mean? And is it true? Does everybody lose from a potato bruise?

Looking at the notes I took during the 7 days, I see that I’m getting the days all mixed up, but c’est la vie. That afternoon (one afternoon), someone shared that she felt so in tune with her painting that she almost felt an electric shock if she tried to paint something in the “wrong place.” I said that sounded like a good idea. If you go to the “wrong place” you get a shock; if you go to the “right place,” you get a Milk Dud.

Oh, I forgot to say that one of the things I noticed post-Vitamin Z is that it’s not so important for me to be funny. As with the “not interested in the world” comment, I had said to J a few weeks back that “I’d rather be funny than anything.” This shocked J because she hadn’t known that about me. Granted, therapy is not the best situation for getting off a lot of zingers, but I thought it was written all over me like a graffitied wall! I felt like the proverbial funnyman who makes people laugh because it’s the only way to satisfy his craving for love. Since Zoloft, it doesn’t feel like such a strong drive. I just sit back and hear the words fly out of my mouth, and if they’re funny, so much the better. There’s less at stake now.

But here’s an interesting postscript to my telling J “I’d rather be funny than anything.” After that session, I went home to try to write about it for the ‘zine, and I looked up “funny” in a quotations book. And the very first quote was from Woody Allen: “I think being funny is not anyone’s first choice.” It was one of those bizarre synchronistic moments: I declare that being funny is my first choice and then find out that one of the funniest people in the world thinks it’s no big deal. Maybe he thinks it’s too easy. That’s what I like about it—minimum effort, maximum reward. I don’t want to be Woody Allen, though, I want to be James Thurber.

OK, I’m getting off track here, and you know how I love to stay on track.

Day 4

My painting has no meaning, but it doesn’t matter. That evening, on the way home, I have to stop at a few places: ATM, grocery store, Rite Aid. As I’m standing in the prescription pick-up line at Rite Aid—usually my idea of Hell on Earth—I realize that it doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing. I’m still me, in the world. Waiting for the person at the head of the line to understand why her medications aren’t covered by insurance seems no different, really, from lying in bed watching TV. Imagine that.

Day 5

Diane and I have an idyllic lunch at Chloe’s on Church St. The food is good, the weather is perfect, and we both feel like we’re being held in the embrace of the universe. I tell her I’m looking for a new hat. (I’m trying to get used to wearing one—preparing myself for the day when I have two wisps of hair left on my head and can just switch to all hat all the time.) Diane tells me about one she’s seen in the gift shop at the Jewish Home, so we drive over there to check it out. It’s a baseball-style cap with the words “Gone Gefilte Fishing!” stitched across the front and “Jewish Home, San Francisco” on the side. Considering the corny “gone fishin’” reference, the cap is actually quite tasteful (canvas, neutral colors). If I had bought the equivalent “ethnic”-type hat in Michigan or Wisconsin—“Gone Lutefisk Fishing!,” for example—it would have been crocheted, with neon reflectors and a Budweiser can sewn into it. Actually, I don’t know that, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit, considering the “yooper” (U.P.’er) culture I grew up in—tasteless without a whiff of irony.

Day 6

In the morning sharing, Barbara asks what we could ask for in painting today, if we asked for what is pushing in us or what we most fear. I ask for antsiness because that’s where I’m at, and I don’t know the half of it. While painting, I get antsy, all right, but the feeling keeps going toward a full-fledged bodily scream that B encourages me to paint with a small brush. On the painting the stream emanates from my mouth, stomach, and genitals. Little holes appear in the “fabric of the universe” and then in the people (the triumvirate of me, Mom and Dad). Then the holes start to widen, and cracks form. The silent screams from my painted self don’t seem to go nearly deep enough, so I paint screams irradiating out of the holes in the fabric of the u. These screams feel like they’re coming from the deepest part of me, beyond the fabric, beyond the existence of everything, or perhaps just beyond the little that I know.

When I show J this painting later, she perceives the “holes” as “openings,” and I have to admit that feels right. It’s not that the fabric is being torn or that black holes are waiting to swallow me up, it’s just that openings are being created for me to pass through (or for something to pass through to me, I suppose). This was a typical turnabout in painting, as when I discovered that the “sentries of the unknown” that I thought were blocking me were actually guides, not guards. It’s fascinating to see that everything we think can be looked at in the opposite way.

Day 7

In the afternoon I call Barbara over, feeling stuck-stuck-stuck. I’ve painted my parents so many times over the years that it feels like all I have to do is paint a bare outline, fill it in with peach color, and add the requisite eyes, nose, mouth, and genitalia. But B says, “Look at the expressions on their faces—they really look like themselves!” It’s true. Mom looks pissed off and is reaching for me as if to strangle me. Dad looks shell-shocked, staring off into space, not even relating to me. When I complain that there is nothing else I can paint on or around them, B asks the fateful question, “What would you paint if they were you?” And we both feel the lightning strike of that question. She says she has never asked it of anyone before. But when I look at the figure of my mother and imagine she’s me, the brush explodes and she becomes fiery, black-hearted, riled up, bleeding from wounds. As I paint her, images from my childhood come to me, seemingly at random. I tell B I feel as if my life is passing before my eyes. I remember the summer I was 13 and had to babysit 6 days a week for the 5-year-old daughter of my cousin and how horribly trapped I felt, like the women in that dissatisfied-suburban-housewife fiction I would later read in the feminist ‘70s. I wonder if I’m tuning into the source of my mother’s anger at becoming the housewife/mother/breadwinner/caretaker instead of the quiet librarian/book reader/traveler she had always wanted to be. But this thought comes later. While painting, I just let my thoughts and feelings roam. I feel vividly the despair of spending the summer in my cousin’s old, grungy apartment, unable to stop the kid’s crying, praying she’d nap all afternoon, reading my cousin’s True Confessions magazines, soft-pornographic images that are still alive and repulsive to me—dirty old men with yellow teeth drooling over the naked breasts of unconscious young girls. There’s probably a whole lot under the surface of that particular memory, but that’s beyond the scope, as they say, of this discussion.

When I move on to the figure of my father and imagine him as me, I start painting his brain exploding, his heart pounding, his stomach roiling, and I have the half-coherent thought that the way I’ve painted his penis, it looks like a hand grenade. Suddenly I am him in World War II, being shot at by German soldiers, a flurry and fury of fear and pain all around me that are much like the feelings that surround my painted mother, but for different reasons. I have never identified so closely with him. That’s when I go out to the sharing room with my red notebook and try to capture some of the words that are finally wanting to come.

After being expelled back to my painting, I add my two sisters and my brother. Once again, when I’m stuck for what to do next, B asks me what I’d paint if they were me. And again I’m thrust into an intense reverie and feel I have become them somehow or at least can “read” them. I paint one sister being molested by our cousin, and she looks fiery and angry and tense, tolerating the invasion. (I tell B, “Everyone in my family was angry; it wasn’t just me!”) I paint my other sister helping my father pee in a bottle, her household chore at age 10 when my father could no longer control his arms. According to her, that’s when her “world stopped.” As I paint her swollen body, eyes drifting upward—the opposite of my other sister’s tight compression—I see there isn’t a lot of difference between my distress and the distress of everyone else in my family, except that we kids kept ours hidden—well, hidden like the purloined letter in the Edgar Allan Poe story, right out in plain sight, or maybe like the tell-tale heart beating under the floorboards.

Finally, I paint my baby brother in his coffin, paint the cross on it with his initials (instead of his name, Mike), and am inundated with sense memories of his funeral, when I thought the adults in the church were laughing at me. (My brother was 2; I was 6.) This is not a new memory—the experience was one of the turning points of my childhood, maybe the turning point—but painting it isn’t so much like remembering as reliving. I paint people all around the coffin laughing their heads off, heartlessly. It feels good to paint them, because they are clearly not me, so I can hate them freely. (I know the people at the funeral weren’t really laughing, but as I paint this projected image it’s as if I’m creating reality retroactively and taking my long-awaited revenge.) I tell B who the laughing people are, and she again asks her question, “What else could you paint on them if they were you?” I don’t want them to be me, but I obediently put myself in their place, and it turns out they do have hearts after all, along with sharp teeth in their midsections. Hearts are breaking in the air around them, and I know that “they” (that is, I) had very complicated feelings about the death of my brother, everything from pain and loss, to love, and probably guilt and repressed jealousy as well. (This last could be where the projected laughter came from.)

It feels so intense, so right, to paint everyone in the painting as me, or as me in them, or as them in me. B comes by again and asks, “Who else?” Who else could I paint more on as if they were me? I groan, because the only two people left are my molesting cousin and my peeing (probably humiliated) father. I paint lightning coming out of my father’s chest and a heart on my cousin, taking these projections, also, into the fold. But B is still there. She asks again, “Who else?” but there is no one else! I point to all the people in the painting, one by one—I did her and him and her and her and him and him—and then I see that I had forgotten about my brother. And that turns out to be the most poignant experience of all, as I paint him surrounded by hearts, feel the beauty of his baby soul (too young to have had all the complicated feelings of a 6-year-old), and notice that the initials I had painted on the cross earlier were M.M., the same as mine.


Being with 12 or 15 other people for 7 days, all of whom are facing themselves on the blank page and sharing their insights, fears, and joys in the group, seeing themselves in one another, taking reassurance that they’re “not the only one,” sometimes pushing one another’s buttons or getting their buttons pushed, is an intense experience. That kind of honesty (with ourselves first of all) and searching seem inevitably to lead to agape, the love for God and our fellow humans.

During that week, besides enjoying some of the friends I’ve made through painting, I made connections with two people I had seen at the studio for years but had never talked to before. It took so little to break that long-frozen ice. One person approached me, and after a brief conversation my judgments of her got turned on their head. It was like looking through one of those tiny holes/openings in the fabric of the universe that allow you to get a glimpse of the richness on the other side.

The other person was someone who stayed aloof from the group and seemed to make eye contact only with Barbara. I impulsively complimented her on her hat (my new life passion), and that tiniest of holes/openings widened to give us a special little hat-bond after that. (She was rather nonplussed—there’s that word again—by the gefilte fishin’ hat, but it was the first time I’d seen her smile.)

But love and honesty make strange bedfellows sometimes. I spontaneously proclaimed to a fellow painter I’ve known for years, “You are a complete mystery to me.” What I meant as an affectionate observation, she took as a huge insult. But that’s the price of taking this journey with one another. You can’t always get what you want, but I think you’ll find, sometimes, you get what you need. For a while I thought I had to make everything right with her, but I finally realized that giving up the responsibility to fix the whole world, one person at a time, allows me to be myself, which is, after all, the only thing I have to give.


And so I bid you adieu, not knowing what will happen with the ‘zine but fairly confident that I can have my proverbial cake and eat it too—live my life, extend myself in unexpected ways, learn more about the world and my place in it, see myself in others and them in me, and be able to write as the spirit moves.


p.s. Pookie is also enjoying life and showing less interest in adding his sarcastic commentary to the ‘zine. He spends as much time as possible outside, picking his way through the honeysuckle vines in search of the lizard who lives there, or lounging by the bird bath, trying to look like a harmless lawn ornament as the birdies flutter around. He’s lost his taste for tuna-flavored laxative and now begs for popcorn instead. We are becoming more like each other all the time—older, fatter, and grayer but with still a gleam in our eye and a spring in our step. When we aren’t napping.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #16 July 2001

October 12, 2009

red, white, and bah humbug

Are we all quite finished celebrating the Fourth of July? I’ve never seen so much hoopla over a 1-day holiday. Since July 4 fell on a Wednesday this year, people were stringing together makeshift vacations out of two weekends and a “short” week. Richard Nixon made the 3-day weekend possible by moving most federal holidays to Mondays, but 3 days off work has become small potatoes. Mid-week holidays are celebrated for a week, and since no one works on the Friday before a 3- (or 5- or 9-)day weekend, those Fridays are de facto holidays too.

My point, of course, is that someday no one will have to work at all, except me. Signed, The Curmudgeon.

But I predict that in the future, for maximum efficiency, there will be only two holiday seasons, each lasting 6 months—The Holidays (formerly known as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s) and The Fourth (formerly known as Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day). The word “Christmas” will die off altogether, except among a few rabid traditionalists, such as the Pope and Martha Stewart. Everyone else will fakily-multiculturally blandify the winter shopping season as The Holidays, which is pretty much what they do now.

Fourth of July sale—5 days only.

—Petaluma car dealer commercial

The purpose of the two holiday seasons, of course, will be to shop, and children will be taught to sing “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of spending-to-save-the-failing-economy.” During The Holidays, merchants will focus the consumption pitch on the theme of The Spirit (Of Shopping), and during The Fourth they will focus, as they do now, on the theme of Freedom (To Buy) and Independence (To Go Against the Crowd by Buying What Other People Can’t Afford). This year, Old Navy commercials, with patriotic band music playing in the background, extolled this theme in a mock-ironic tone, as if they were poking fun at the commercialization of the holiday—“Support the Red, White, and Blue! Buy Something!”—while at the same time baldly declaring their true intention.

The consolidation of holidays will require that the currently constituted minor holidays be subsumed into the Big Two. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday (when “I Have a Dream Mattresses” will be on sale, if they aren’t already) will take up the tail end of The Holidays, and Gay Pride Day (Week/Month) and Memorial Day, strange bedfellows though they may be, will play an integral role in getting The Fourth under way—Memorial Day will represent the sale of picnic foods, Weber barbeques, and backyard pools, and Gay Pride Day will represent the highly desirable new market of “nontraditional families” (formerly known as queers). The words “gay” and “lesbian” will disappear along with “Christmas,” because they conjure up unpleasant images in the minds of otherwise motivated shoppers. But to encourage the new nontraditional families to get out and buy, there will be one massive annual parade down Market Street to the ocean that will last for days and celebrate the Pride of anyone at all, both nondenominationally and nonsexually-orientationally.

Easter will disappear, because there’s really nothing to buy for it except baskets, colored eggs, and candy, and without the birth of Christ, who needs to celebrate His resurrection? Or it will just be renamed Bunny Day, because there really is a dearth of holidays in the spring, and it’s important to anchor the beginning of The Fourth, just as Macy’s or Sears anchors a mall. The Fourth will have to start getting under way sometime in late March, lest consumers forget their purpose in life. The Fourth will officially end in late September, to give the people who put off their summer vacations until they think everyone else is back at work a chance to get their RV’s and SUV’s and every other kind of V’s out there on the roads, fully equipped with a duplicate of every convenience they have at home. Labor Day will be renamed Labor-Saving Day, the perfect time to shop for household appliances. Then The Holidays will begin again. Actually, The Holidays will never end, and neither will The Fourth. Clearly, what’s in store (so to speak) for us is a total consolidation of all celebratory buying occasions, and America will be renamed Holidayland, and people a hundred years from now will be debating the origins of the name and whether there was ever a time when holidays happened one day at a time. And the scholars and pedants who can still remember that there was once an important date far back in history known as July 4, 1776, will be on hand to bore everyone to death with their nitpicky details about what the US of A was originally meant to be.

But at some point, I’m sure, the pendulum will begin to swing back, and there will be a movement to establish a few Workdays throughout the year, so that people can take a much-deserved break from all that shopping. On Workdays (beginning cautiously with one day a week, probably Wednesday so the weekend can start promptly on Thursday), people will be encouraged to find productive labor in order to beef up their bank accounts so that they can continue the all-important getting and spending that is their—and their magnificent country’s—true purpose.

off to see the wizard

Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible.

—Monsanto Corporation’s 1979 advertising slogan

I feel slightly glamorous sitting alone in Dr. P’s tasteful waiting room on a tree-lined street in Menlo Park. The four blank doors that surround me—she shares office space with other practitioners—lead to sanctums sanctorums unknown. I’ve pushed the button next to Dr. P’s name that will cause a light to go on in her office so she’ll know I’ve arrived. Something about that detail intrigues me—the discretion, the quiet signal of a light—a metaphor? enlightenment?—instead of the crass public milieu of a regular doctor’s office, with its coughing patients and gossiping receptionists. I feel like I’ve stepped into a novel, or at least an episode of “The Sopranos.” Dr. P is my new—my first, my only—psychiatrist, and I have come in the hope that modern pharmacology will cure at least some of my woes. J and I have agreed that it’s time for me to try anti-anxiety medication, since nothing else has worked on my clenched-stomach symptom.

While I’m waiting, I study the picture on the wall across from me. It’s a bland, unpeopled rural scene—a large tree in the foreground, and in the background an arched gateway that leads nowhere. I think of Tony Soprano getting pissed off at Dr. Melfi for having a “trick picture” in her waiting room. He accuses her of deliberately putting a picture of a “rotting tree” on the wall as a way to evaluate his mental state. He can’t think of the name of the test—“Horshack,” he finally calls it. She asks if the picture disturbs him, and he says the disturbance is “built in.” I recognize the paranoia of one who has trouble trusting authority figures.

But most of you probably don’t watch “The Sopranos,” so I guess I’ll have to keep my allusions to a minimum. I can’t afford HBO either, but I rented the first season at the video store and got hooked. I finally bought the tapes and watched them all over again. The second and third seasons aren’t out on tape yet, so I’m woefully behind on story development.

Tony Soprano is the bad guy you hate to love; I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love him, but I’m fascinated by him. He’s a complex person and likeable in spite of the mouth on him—“Stick it up your fuckin’ ass” is a typical response—rather than the usual one-dimensional gangster. And there seems to be a hint of redemption to come. His seeing a shrink at all is a sign that he has a hidden inner life. A clinically depressed person must be capable of remorse, of deep feeling. We get to see the world through his eyes, and depending on how you look at it, the show could be an insidious way to get us to sympathize with a cold-blooded killer or a way to believe vicariously in our own redemption. When, after much thought, he calls the police to arrest a child molester instead of having him killed, he gets drunk and rolls giddily on the floor, exclaiming to his wife, “I didn’t hurt nobody.” And we think, “Aha! He doesn’t really want to be a bad guy!” What a hook—lots more interesting than watching guys shoot each other in the street (though they do that too—this is no touchie-feelie fairy tale).

I don’t think the picture in Dr. P’s waiting room is a “Horshack” test—and I don’t think the tree is rotten—but I wonder if I’m about to go through a gateway that leads nowhere. Already, I’m anxious about having to drive so far (55 miles each way) and pay so much—Menlo Park shrinks charge an arm and a leg—guess I can only go twice, ha ha—to tell my life story all over again. The worst thing about having any “illness,” if that’s what this is, is having to talk about it all the time. Or maybe it’s just the opposite—maybe I want to talk about myself all the time, and this gives me the perfect excuse.

Seeing a psychiatrist also feels symbolically like I’m facing an old demon from my past. As a teenager I read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and scared myself half to death with the extent to which I identified with the main character, who was a patient in a mental institution. All through my childhood, I was aware of a place in the U.P. called Newberry, where the crazy people went. I don’t remember if anyone ever threatened to send me there. I heard quite a lot about “the poorhouse,” but I’m not sure what gave me the heebie-jeebies about Newberry. One of my cousins did end up there, after spending a cold night in a swamp and freezing both his feet off. I don’t know what his diagnosis was, but I think his father, my uncle, was manic-depressive—clinically depressed, for sure, and I had seen him in a manic state. So in addition to spending the first 40 or so years of my life afraid that I was going to get multiple sclerosis or alcoholism from my father’s genes, I worried sporadically that I might be genetically destined to end up “crazy.” The crazy genes would have come down through my mother, so I was covered on both sides for something bad to happen.

You know, I have a horrible feeling I’m going to end up on my deathbed realizing how much of my life I’ve spent worrying about things that never happened. But it seems to be the way I’m built. Or at least the way I’ve grown, like a tree that twists and turns to accommodate nearby trees or a concrete wall, contorting itself into any shape necessary to sustain its life.


The specter of Newberry popped from the back of my mind to the forefront at the beginning of the eighth grade. For some reason, my mother was supposed to drive me to school on the first day. Most days, I took the bus, and by God, I wish I had taken it that day. School was my haven, my escape from home, but the first day of school was always traumatic—new teachers, new kids, the self-consciousness of showing up in new clothes. I was anxious, getting ready—do I start out wearing the new rust-colored blouse and skirt ensemble, or do I transition in with last year’s poodle skirt and the new pink fuzzy sweater? I had a new little purse, my first, which contained a pack of Wrigley’s spearmint gum, a comb, and a dime in case someone asked me to go out for a Coke. (I had no source of income; a dime was big money; we’re talking 1959.) When it was time to leave and my mother wasn’t ready, I panicked. The thought of walking in late on the first day of school, in front of the whole class, made my stomach churn. But empathy was not my mother’s strong suit. If she wouldn’t bother to stop for a policeman trying to pull her over, she sure didn’t think twice about making me late for school.

At the last possible minute, my mother recruited my cousin John to drive me. He lived right next door and had just got his driver’s license. I avoided John whenever possible, ever since I managed to find an excuse to get out of the back seat at the outdoor drive-in theater where he was trying to get his hands in my pants while my parents watched the movie in the front seat. He had stalked me for months, or years, I don’t remember anymore. I just remember the mental snapshots—precious memories (not)—of specific scenes—his startled face framed in the window when I stood up from my bath—his naked game of “hot dog and bun,” no surprise which part I played—the odd tableau we made by the washtubs in the basement, me with the dribbling hose, him watching, always watching, like a creepy yellow-toothed man out of True Confessions magazine.

I don’t remember the ride to school, I only remember arriving, sliding into my homeroom desk barely on time and out of breath, feeling sick to my stomach. What a close call! I sat there, trying to still my beating heart and calm my stomach. Suddenly, I had the most dreadful thought. What if I got so sick that I had to throw up? In those days, you didn’t just get up out of your chair and waltz out the door—or even run out. I had never before thought of the classroom as confining; it had always been my salvation, my structured haven away from the chaos and unpredictability of home. Suddenly I saw it as a prison. I couldn’t just sit there and throw up at my desk like a second-grader. I’d never live it down, and I was not exactly on the Miss Popular track to begin with. But I also couldn’t run out of the room, with no time even to ask permission to leave. Even if I did, I’d have to come back at some point—feeling humiliated—worse than being late on the first day of school—and then what if it happened again, and again?

I knew enough to know I was creating this dilemma myself. The nervous ride to school with John had been a trigger, but now the fear of vomiting had a hold on me. Now that I saw the truth of how much of a prisoner I really was, I felt doomed. I was a prisoner not only of my teacher, Mr. Ersland, but worse, of my own thought processes. It’s amazing to me now that I put so much trust in my reasoning abilities at age 12 or 13. I knew exactly how I was setting myself up to feel sick, but I couldn’t think of a solution, and therefore, in my still-developing brain, there wasn’t one. Is this why so many teenagers commit suicide? They have an acute knowledge of the bleakness of their situation, without any perspective to see a way out. I think that’s the curse of adolescence. You see the negative so clearly, and it’s not that you’re exaggerating—you see it, and you know it’s real. What you don’t know is that there’s a better world out there than the one you see at home or in school, but it can take many years to show itself. The lucky ones have parents or a teacher or another adult who can see farther than they can. I had no one.

I want that sentence to stand on its own as a factual statement—I had no one—but I realize how melodramatic it sounds, as if I were Princess or Kitten or whichever one of the “Father Knows Best” kids was the tortured teen, and merely had a fight with my best friend or lost my math book or something and forgot how very understanding my wise father and loving mother could be. (As a first-generation TV watcher, I believed in the truth of shows like “Father Knows Best” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” It was my family that was out of whack.)

But no, I was alone. My mother had been my primary link to human connectedness, and she had pretty much cut that link with the “Why My Mother Deserves To Be Queen for a Day” episode (see mary’zine #3 for the whole brutal story).

So there I was. I couldn’t run out of the classroom even once, even knowing that the nausea would vanish as soon as I was free, out in the hall. I knew that if it happened once, I was done for. And I couldn’t stay and vomit in the classroom; that would be a thousand times worse. Either way, I couldn’t afford to let this feeling get away from me. If I was identified as “having a problem,” the least of it would be the teasing or the shunning by the other kids. All I could think about was Newberry—the nuthouse, the insane asylum. I was absolutely sure, in every fiber of my being, that no adult in my world—not Mr. Ersland, not the principal, not the large, braying guidance counselor, and certainly not my mother—could begin to understand the mental bind I was in. Surely, only a bona fide crazy person would worry about such a thing, would make herself sick for no reason. They would try to “talk sense” into me, those sane adults, and I would never be able to explain myself. They would have no choice but to send me away to Newberry, where someone who could create such a self-torturing mental loop surely belonged.

Of course, I can see now that there was something going on that I had no way to grasp at the time. There was so much inside me that I couldn’t let out—not just in the homeroom but in my whole life, maybe since birth and certainly since my little brother Mike got sick and died—all those unspoken fears, all that anger I couldn’t afford to express toward my narcissistic, preoccupied mother; my disabled, ranting father; my sexually stalking cousin; my cruel male classmates who openly jeered at my pimpled, permanented, four-eyed, tongue-tied self; my teacher with his sarcastic taunts about how little we knew of life’s problems—as I sat there gripping the sides of my desk, staring at the large metal wastebasket to have one still point in my world, willing myself to keep it all inside, the contents of my stomach and the contents of my psyche, was there a difference?

This torture went on for the whole school year, every single day. But each day, the nausea mercifully only lasted for the first period. As soon as I went on to my second period class, I was free of the fear, for some reason, as if surviving the most difficult hour let me off the hook for the rest of the day. And how appropriate, in a way, that my first visit to a psychiatrist would be in search of relief of another stomach symptom—one that may also be caused by everything I hold inside. But now I’m old enough and enough in charge of my life that I can call up the lady shrink myself and seek her diagnosis and her prescription drugs, without the fear that she will cart me off to the Bay Area equivalent of Newberry. Since my horrible, silent, suffering adolescence, I’ve learned to talk about what’s going on inside me, and I’ve learned that there are people out there who will listen and understand. So, no—I am not nostalgic for my lost youth, why do you ask?


When Dr. P finally summons me inside, I give her the nutshell (so to speak) version of my life, and the first story I tell, and the only one I cry about, is the story of my bleak year of nausea in the eighth grade. She takes all my life tragedies in stride, including the molestation—she’s just looking for patterns of anxiety and depression, and I’m sure she’s heard much worse. But it’s weird how you find yourself competing for Worst Childhood or Most Depressing Life when you’re talking to a therapist while, at the same time, you feel so lucky and blessed in your life and, strangely, both are true. It’s almost as if all the bad things happened a long time ago, except, of course, for the sad fact that currently you feel like your upper abdomen is a separate thing, like a deer strapped to the hood of a car, and you want to be dead a good percentage of the time—not to kill yourself, nothing so cruel to your loved ones as that, you’re not desperate—but just to be done with it already, as if your life lately is like that horrible point three-quarters of the way through a rough therapy session (I’m talking about J now) where you can’t believe you looked forward to seeing this person, whom you usually adore but who is now torturing you, which she prefers to call challenging you, with some undeniable truth that you can’t acknowledge and with an impossible request that you can’t see any way of fulfilling, like maybe emitting sounds from deep in your silent chest and she’s looking at you with respect and sympathy as she awaits your decision, are you going to step forward and take the risk to be seen (and heard), or fall back like you’ve been doing all your life, and you glance at the clock and it’s not time to go yet and you think, like Tony Soprano’s mother, I wish the Lord would take me now.

Because I’m so “complicated” (moi?), Dr. P and I have to schedule another appointment for the following week to discuss which serotonin reuptake inhibitor best suits my special needs. She is frankly amazed that I’ve never taken any Prozac-type drugs before, and I tell her all about self-medicating with caffeine, which I would still be perfectly happy to do if only my body hadn’t started rejecting it. Self-medication (or self-sufficiency in general, I suppose) is all well and good up to a point, but then the Being that we are deep down starts making its presence known, sometimes in such a prodding, uncomfortable way that we have to go out in the world, seeking the help (or maybe just the contact) we need, until we get the message and see that we do need other people, that it’s not enough to live on the Island of Self with a tax-deductible home office and relationships by e-mail and a cat whose silence is easily bought with a little tuna-flavored laxative. Strangely, it’s just as scary to think of reaching out now as it was in junior high, because now I have no excuse, I know lots of wonderful people—not just J but the whole alphabet. Time to write the new story of my life from that alphabet instead of going round and round about the past.


After the eighth grade was finally over and I was rid of the sarcastic Mr. Ersland, I spent the summer at Henes Park, alternately working at the concession stand with my father and going swimming. Every now and then, I’d think about the ninth grade coming up and wonder if I was going to go through the whole hideous ordeal again. Sure enough, when the first day of school came, the phobia started right up again. As it happened, my first period class was home ec. There were three rotating sections of home ec—sewing, cooking, and art (!)—and I was starting the year in sewing, which I hated with a passion. Those bobbins, those patterns, those self belts! I had a complete and utter lack of interest or competence in the female world they were trying to prepare me for. On the first day of school, I sat there at my assigned Singer treadle sewing machine and steeled myself for another year—a lifetime—of trying to stay hidden, and contained.

Just then, the principal came in. There were too many girls in sewing class and not enough in art. Who would be willing to transfer? I practically threw myself at the guy. “I’ll go!”

When I walked into the art room, with the easels, the paints, the indefinable feeling of freedom, the implied permission that drawing and painting gave me—I breathed my first free breath in over a year. I was saved.

feng shui this

At Barbara’s surprise 50th birthday party, where a grand time was had by all, we had a lively conversation about clutter. Barbara had bought a book called Clean Up Your Clutter with Feng Shui, and she and her daughter had successfully “decluttered” her house. So everyone started chiming in about how bad it is to have any unnecessary items anywhere in your environment, “blocking energy,” and so forth, and I took the devil’s advocate position against the obsession with orderliness. Like—relax, be free, don’t worry about it. Because in that moment, probably a direct result of the fact that I have Clutter up the Wazoo, it seemed just as enslaving to be afraid to have anything on hand that you don’t absolutely love as it was to be weighed down by unnecessary possessions. Constantly judging what you love, what you don’t love—it seemed to me that patrolling your environment for every unloved scrap of paper was a waste of time, when you could just as well let that scrap of paper sit quietly on your dining room table under the phone book, the fall 1999 dining guide, your sunglasses, and a handful of change, where you just might need it someday.

So I took the position that Clutter can be a source of Creation. Block energy? Why not see it as creating energy, sparking creativity? Who mandated that everything you own has to be only the very most special thing? There’s something so puritanical about that, so anti-life. Why not embrace Abundance and Discovery? If you want to make birthday cards or collages or sculptures, you need working materials. (Granted, this does not really apply to most scraps of paper.) I had the idea to write a book called Love Your Clutter, Love Your Life. It seemed like a valid point of view, and besides, any book that supports people’s hope that they really don’t have to improve their lives is sure to be a best-seller.

I read a very disturbing article a while back (unfortunately, I never save the articles I wish I had) in which a young environmentalist was so despairing about the place of humans on the planet that he said that the space he himself took up would be better off empty. In other words, he felt that just by breathing and using up whatever resources he needed to stay alive, he was harming the planet. He seemed to be speaking for the minimalists who want to “tread lightly” to the point of not existing at all. I think there’s something very, very wrong with this. I say you have as much right to be here as any animal, any plant, any insect. Removing yourself from the picture isn’t going to do the planet any favors.


But as often happens when I take a strong position on something, my argument in favor of clutter was just the last gasp in defense of the status quo, and underneath, something was already beginning to change. In fact, I had already bought three plastic storage boxes to start dismantling my sand tray collection. Anybody have a compelling use for scads of plastic eyeballs, spiders, knives, dinosaurs, soldiers, animals, cars, flowers, and skeletons?

So even as I was arguing the devil’s position, the anti-clutter seed was being planted. When I got home, I started looking around my office, and I reluctantly admitted that something had to be done. I had a totally unusable work table that was piled with wire and metal sculpture materials, tools, stacks of ‘zine copies and correspondence, plastic folders bulging with stickers, and four wire and metal sculptures that had been gathering dust since the first Bush administration. Worse, the area under the table was also crammed full with rolls of wire, metal rods and tie plates, old manuscripts, and a storage box full of God knows what from an earlier attempt to get organized.

The next day I set to work. I had to start somewhere, so I made the difficult decision to dismantle one of the sculptures, which featured a blindfolded girl doll trapped in a Lego tower. (Using the previously disputed feng shui criteria, I had to admit that I did not love this thing.) So I painstakingly took it apart, thus creating even more piles of wire and metal. I had the brilliant idea of hanging the other three sculptures from the ceiling. Two are flimsy but evocative forms of wire “houses” that represented my insecure state of mind when I made them, and one is a flimsy but evocative form of a “church” that, likewise.

I’ve noticed that deciding to get rid of stuff is similar to going on a diet, in the sense that, out of an advance fear of deprivation, I find myself going out and buying more stuff or eating extra food to make up for what I’m going to cut out of my life. Truly, the left brain doesn’t know what the right brain is doing half the time. So, telling myself I needed more containers to help me organize my stuff, I went to Stacks & Stacks and bought some wire baskets for the work table and another bookcase—which I clearly needed, because I only have two other bookcases in my office, along with two long banquet tables, a computer desk, two filing cabinets, several cardboard storage boxes full of old files and memorabilia, a card table, a typing table, another long table for my stereo equipment (two radios, four speakers, a tape player, a CD player, a receiver, and a turntable), and piles of envelopes, file folders, hanging folders, and computer manuals on the floor. My dream books are on the shelf under the computer desk, and all my Krishnamurti books are lined up on the floor under that, pretending they’re on the bottom shelf of a bookcase. There’s also Xerox paper and a box of scrap paper under there. Oh, and there’s an almost-life-size wire skeleton that I constructed with a floor lamp as the spine that stands next to my computer. Also, I have three chairs in the room and a painting board, a huge bulletin board, and lots of pictures and some metal crosses on the walls. And some wire that goes along one whole wall above the big window that’s strung with colorful plastic crosses. And a string of chili pepper lights over my other window. And a “tramp art” matchstick cross Diane gave me on the windowsill. And icon calendars and postcards and photographs, and dried flowers, a family of ceramic cows, a silkscreen poster of Annie Oakley (the real one) shooting at me, and packing materials for absolutely any occasion, including several Fed Ex and Airborne boxes. You want me to tell you I love everything in that room? Maybe not, but I love the effect. When I sit at my command center (the computer), I feel supported and energized by all the color and texture that surrounds me, the sheer energy of my sculptures and paintings, the many wonderful gifts I’ve received, my fabric of things that reflect who I am.

Of course, the bookcase I bought had to be assembled, and miraculously, I managed to glue and nail it together and haul it into place almost the same day I bought it, though the cardboard box it came in, which I flattened out for Pookie to sprawl on, took up half my bedroom floor for several days before I finally cut it up for recycling, and I think the screwdriver, Elmer’s glue, box cutter, and extra nails and screw coverings are still in there somewhere. One of the plastic storage boxes is now full of wire and metal, and it’s half blocking the door to my office because I haven’t gotten around to finding a good place for it. And yet I have made progress.

Turns out I didn’t have that much stuff to put in the new bookcase besides my 41 bound journals, so I happily took a metal interior breadbox off Peggy and Cally’s hands, and it’s on one of the shelves now, with a red and white plaster Jesus standing inside with his hand raised in blessing amid a pile of gold beads. Man, I can decorate.

See? Even as I’m trying to describe the turning over of my new leaf, I’m betraying my delight in stuff. When I “declutter,” I’m working against my Buddha-nature, trying to be someone I’m not and never will be. Give me a sheet of paper with writing on it, and I’ll organize it down to the last comma and full stop. But in the physical world I’m useless. Things dominate me. Stuff happens and then collects around me. There’s probably already a book called Feng Shui for Dummies, but if not, maybe I could write that one. It would have to offer a modified form of organization for people who don’t naturally think that way. For instance, the standard advice to “handle a piece of paper only once”?—can’t do it. Anything that comes in the mail or gets cut out of the newspaper goes on my dining room table, the central collection spot.

You know the Buddhist definition of eternity? As I remember it, a little bird flies to a mountain once every thousand years and takes away one grain of sand. When the mountain is gone, that’s the beginning of eternity. That’s pretty much my method of housekeeping. Every six months or so (I don’t have a thousand years to spare), I’ll be walking by the dining room table and I’ll impulsively pick up a newspaper clipping about, say, identity theft—the proverbial grain of sand—and I’ll carry it upstairs and put it on top of one of my bulging file cabinets, to be filed later. The next time I “fly to the mountain,” another clipping or stray pen or phone number on a slip of paper will make its way upstairs. Thus do I contribute to the birth of eternity in my own small way. I just thought of something. Where does the little bird put the grains of sand it takes away? It must have to make another mountain out of them, at which point some other little bird will have to start taking away those grains of sand. I’m beginning to get the picture. Eternity takes forever to even get to.

In some strange way, I think I feel calmer in the middle of chaos. Halfway through this clean-up project, half of my CDs are piled under my desk, waiting to be taken to the record store for trade-in, and half of my clothes are piled on the bedroom floor, covered with the trash bag they will eventually go in, waiting to be taken to the Salvation Army, and my work table is half cleaned up but still strewn with miscellaneous items I haven’t found a place for—a candy dish full of glow-in-the-dark crucifixes, a friend’s manuscript that I can’t bring myself to toss, several tubes of glue, some rusted metal decorations left over from the birdhouse I made Terry—but I feel quite cheerful about it, as if I’ve projected my inner clutter onto these inanimate objects, which can handle it a lot better than I can.

At first, I was thinking I collect things around me as a way to symbolically stave off death, because disorder can be confused with liveliness. But then I remembered that when my mother was dying and I didn’t know how I would survive the void that seemed to be opening up at my feet, I became compulsive about cleaning out closets and doing crossword puzzles. I knew I was doing what I could to create order out of emotional chaos, even though it was a false order and real chaos. Maybe it works both ways—maybe the continual struggle between creating the chaos and creating the order is just our pitiful attempt to control the uncontrollable. But let’s have a little compassion for ourselves. We deserve to live, to take up space, and to fill our space any way we want to. Love your clutter, clean up your clutter—your choice—but in any case, people—love your life.

p.s. Pookie would say hi, but he’s been grounded for spending too much time on the Internet. Kitty porn.

[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 random redux: #8 Oct./Nov. 2000

October 3, 2009

the trip of the century

Considering I’m not exactly Travel Girl, my trip to western Massachusetts to see Terry and Jean was a huge success. My extensive planning paid off, as did my years of therapy, which have taught me a thing or two about boundaries and about staying in my body when I have the impulse to flee.

I admit, there were times when the planning got a bit out of hand, such as when I was writing a note for Pookie’s temporary caretaker, Jean M. I wrote down instructions for what to do—the feeding, the watering, the scooping—plus the phone number for where I’d be, the vet’s phone number, the pet ER’s phone number, the office hours of the vet, the hours of the pet ER, plus special situations such as the vet is open certain Saturday afternoons so call him first, but all day Sundays or weekdays after 6:00, just go ahead and call the pet ER… and by then I had run out of paper and realized she probably wouldn’t need to call the vet anyway. Five days in the life of your average cat usually aren’t that exciting. Clearly, I was projecting my sense that leaving home for even a few days would create massive shifts in the earth’s infrastructure and permanent changes in climate. I tore up the note and wrote a new one.

Food—as you might expect—was also planned down to the last bite. I had snacks for the plane—popcorn, peanuts, energy bars—and even an alternative lunch in case the vegetarian lunch I had ordered was inedible (“vegetarian” turned to “vegan” in United’s computer—I’m sorry, but vegan is way too exotic for my tastes—if exotic is even the right word). Kate had advised me to bring a sandwich or a burrito, but I was too self-conscious to eat brazenly from my land-based food supply while fellow passengers picked at their foil-wrapped food-like substances. So instead, I packed a Tupperware container of roast chicken in bite-size pieces so I could nibble on the sly. (Yes, I know no one would question my supplementing a vegan lunch with chicken, but still….)

The night before the trip, I barely slept. The brain was all set to go, rehearsing the final steps that would have to be taken when the alarm went off, going over and over the plan. As usual, the body was left eating the brain’s dust. All it could do was lie there hoping against hope that the brain would eventually wear itself out with its thinking, and for a while it did, and the body took its few zzzzzz’s in the early morning hours.

Alarm goes off. Travel Girl—for she is de facto Travel Girl for the next 5 days—thinks there’s plenty of time to complete the duties on the last-minute to-do list, but the 2 hours allotted for final packing, eating, and bathing pass so quickly that the last few minutes are a blur, and she runs out the door without time for a final, careful perusal of every room in the house. The car does not break down on the way to the Marin Airporter, so that is good. (Each leg of this trip is going to be measured in such small victories.) She buys her bus ticket and manages to lose it between the service counter and the bathroom, a distance of about 10 feet. Panicking (so soon the plan starts to unravel? she can’t believe it!), she asks the weary bus counter man for another pass to get on the bus and is told she will have to fork over another $13. She retraces her steps and finds the pass lying on the floor of the bathroom stall. This lack of focus is not a good omen, she thinks.

(As the reader has perhaps divined, the out-of-body experience has begun, and all actions are being observed from a vantage point about 5 feet above Travel Girl’s head. Part, but not all, of the explanation for this is Dramamine, that miracle motion-sickness pill that permits the airborne journey in the first place but takes a toll on body, mind, and spirit.)

Before she knows it, Travel Girl has arrived uneventfully at the airport, has stood in the interminable, snaking line with the true Travel People (most of whom have learned from experience to pack everything on wheels), and is now seated at gate 75, boarding pass in hand, with a  mere 2 hours to wait for the plane to take off. She spends the time alternately people-watching and reading the book she has brought, the perfect easy read for the circumstances, Armistead Maupin’s The Night Listener. Throwing convention to the winds (it is only 9:30 a.m.), she starts in on the snacks… first the popcorn, then surreptitious bites of chicken sneaked out of the Tupperware. (Like many other things about Travel Girl, her secretive nature passeth understanding.)

Miraculously, the flight is on time, and it’s nonstop to Hartford, so it feels like a small step for a woman, a giant step for this same woman to actually get on the plane and take her seat, a window seat right over the wing, so she has an unobstructed view (of the wing). She waits breathlessly for her seatmate to show up—will it be a Bratty Child, a Talkative Woman, or a Lecherous Man (the only choices, she fears)? Bingo, it’s a Bratty Child, a one-and-a-half-year-old boy with a doting mother. Travel Girl’s heart sinks at the thought of spending 5 hours next to an active, much-loved, much-indulged child. The plane starts moving, but 10 minutes later it appears they are going to roll all the way to Massachusetts. Finally—airborne! Now the trip feels like it has officially begun. Mother and Child begin a series of games to keep Child occupied. The first game involves spelling, but while the Mother supplies various consonants for the Child’s edification, the only letters at his command appear to be “I?” “E”? “I?” “E?” spoken with emphasis, volume, and unrelenting regularity, with the counterpoint of Mom’s futile suggestions of “D?” “T?” for at least the first 200 miles. (Are they trying to spell DIET, or am I just paranoid?)

Fortunately, I have read Rob Morse’s column in the Examiner about survival tips for flying. His Number 1 tip is to block out the sounds of children and other living things. So I narrow my focus, concentrating on my book and resigning myself to a cross-country spelling bee. But gradually, I realize that this Mother is actually aware of when her Child is kicking or slobbering on Travel Girl and pulls him gently away. For this I am extremely grateful. It makes all the difference between occasional annoyance and all-out despair. (No, it doesn’t occur to me to interact with the Child, why do you ask?)

The vegan lunch consists of a container the size of a 3 by 5 card with soft, unidentifiable vegetables, an unidentifiable grain, and an unidentifiable sauce. I do, in fact, supplement the official vittles with my bootleg chicken. The Child has fallen asleep, the Vegans have provided me with a cookie that would not be considered edible on land, but something about being airborne—like being in the hospital—makes every little offering a mystery to be unwrapped if not savored. So I nibble on the no-wheat/no-dairy/no-sugar/no-kidding cookie and consider that maybe Traveling isn’t so bad after all. Besides, I’ve got plenty of peanuts.

While I succumb to leaden, Dramamine-induced sleep, time flies—ha ha—and before I know it, it is nighttime and we are approaching Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn. I admit that I have spent a few short moments in the air worrying that I have miscalculated the geography of the eastern states and that when Terry said “Hartford,” she meant someplace called Hartford, Mass., not Hartford, Conn., where I am about to land. But no, it’s the right Hartford, so once again I feel my Travel Karma is right on track.

I wobble and lurch my way down the ramp to greet my friends (I had to take a second Dramamine over Nebraska to be sure that I would remain drugged throughout the flight.) My first words are, “You should be honored—I wouldn’t do this for just anybody.” It’s great and bizarre to see T&J on the other side of the continent—they have always come west—and it’s great and bizarre to be on the other side of the continent. The miracle of flight, to this fledgling Travel Girl, is still a mystery right up there with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Lo and behold, my duffel bag—which I had packed for Y2K seemingly a century ago and then unpacked to put it to actual use on this trip—which was like opening up a time capsule and marveling over the ancient artifacts—the dental floss, bank statements, and pulp fiction, the lost pair of black pants that I had been searching for for weeks—appears in the stream of rotating luggage, and I pluck it out gratefully, one more step of my journey successfully negotiated. We walk out into the cool night air and climb into Jean’s SUV, the first such vehicle I’ve seen that is actually used to navigate wintry dirt roads, not as a status symbol to drive to the grocery store. It’s unseasonably cold, I’m told, but I bought a microfiber jacket for the trip, and I’m snug as the proverbial bug. Planning Girl feels vindicated.

We discuss what to do about food for quite a few miles—it’s 8:00 p.m. for them but only 5:00 for me. (Over the next 3 days I will be constantly pointing out the time difference—“I can’t believe I’m eating lunch at 9:30 a.m.!” “I can’t believe I’m eating dinner at 3:00 p.m.!” What a delightful houseguest I must have been.) We end up at one of my favorite kinds of places, a real, honest-to-God diner. I’m thrilled to be sitting down on a solid chair on solid ground in the company of my friends. Suddenly all things seem possible, even Travel. (That might be partly due to the Coke I had on the plane and again in the diner—caffeine on top of motion-detector-deadening Dramamine makes me feel hopped up on goofballs.) My first moment of culture shock is when I smell the smoke emanating from cigarettes brandished by unrepentant customers in adjoining booths. I feel like such a California purist, not a citizen of the real world at all but coddled and buffered in her home state from Life’s Unpleasant Emissions.

Hmmm—I’m on page 4 and we haven’t even gotten to T&J’s house yet. I think I need to pick up the pace a little bit. Well, I’m thrilled and impressed by their new house—beautiful and spacious, out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by fir trees and reports of mountain lions in the back 40, with a huge dome of stars overhead. I have my own bedroom and my own bathroom. Finally I begin to relax after the months of anxious planning. The whole raison d’etre of the trip comes into focus—travel isn’t just about transportation, it’s about destination. I have successfully left my cocoon and soared across friendly skies to land in a friendly foreign environment. It’s a good feeling.

For those who don’t know them, Terry is an old painting friend—we’ve braved years of Esalen workshops and the intense teacher training together, and she is teaching now. Jean is her partner, whom I had met only a few times before but felt comfortable with instantly. They are like family to me.

After sleeping off the double dose of Dramamine, I awaken at 4:30 a.m. (body time) and try to reconcile the sunlight coming in the window with my creature sense that it should still be dark and (more important) that I should still be asleep. Jean has been called away early for an emergency meeting of a community board she’s on, so Terry and I laze away the morning, catching up on our news, taking a tour of the house, and playing with their new black kitten, a fireball named Gus, whom I rechristen Thugmuffin for his alternately Cuddly-Cute and Hell-on-Paws antics.

Western Massachusetts is a revelation to me—everything so clean and orderly, barely populated (or so it seems), hardly any traffic, cold, clear, and bright, with beautiful greenery everywhere. Shelburne Falls reminds me of my youthful days in Northfield, Minnesota—one of those small towns filled with college-educated folks who take classes in stained glass or stone carving and act in the community plays. I realize that one reason I haven’t liked to travel is that I’m afraid of awakening my desire, of wanting something new that will be inconvenient and require sacrifices. But with T&J I feel both expansive and contained, so it feels safe to fantasize. I let myself imagine who I will have to convince to move with me. (If you think I’m going to name names, you’re crazy.)

I’m excited by everything I see—the “bridge of flowers,” the Art Bank where Terry teaches, the tree-covered hills, and the brick architecture I’d almost forgotten about while living in the far west. T&J seem to know everybody in town. We run into the female owners of Margo’s Bistro, where we’re going to eat that night; their contractor; the head of the Art Bank; the editor of the newspaper. Despite the appeal of the small town, that’s one thing I relearn about myself, that I prefer being anonymous in my daily rounds.

Also, I have to keep reminding myself that it’s fall, my favorite season, and the weather is basically like S.F.’s, only about 10 degrees colder. Easy to fantasize about all-fall-all-the-time and forget the twin tortures of winter and summer. At dinner, we run into a fellow painter, Deanie, who does a satisfying double-take at seeing me transplanted 3,000 miles from the site of our last encounter. I choose tofu and pasta for dinner—as with the airplane vegan lunch, I am making half-hearted strides toward a healthier diet—and the faux-meaty taste of the tofu links reminds me of my earlier attempt at vegetarianism, when the first tofu hot dog I ever tried seemed like a viable option, and the second one proved inedible—some strange chemical reaction, or else my mind catching on to what I was eating. But also, it’s only 3:00 p.m. Pacific time, and my stubborn body has rules about when it will eat what.

That night Terry and I try out their new hot tub—a wonderful shock of liquid body heat in the midst of a cold, starry night—and I don’t know if it’s the tofu or the full day of being introduced to strangers, or the release of tension after months of Travel Girl Planning, but my lower lip starts trembling and my eyes start leaking hot tears into the hot water. As always, I try to figure out what’s wrong, but the beauty of my long friendship with Terry is that there’s a mutual loving acceptance of each other’s idiosyncratic crying patterns, and so the storm comes and goes without very much precipitation and no storm damage at all.

The next day, we drive to Northampton, and I discover that this is my fantasy town. It’s like a small city or a neighborhood in a big city, with lots of colleges in the surrounding area so it’s a beacon of hipness and literary and artistic activity. The book Home Town by Tracy Kidder is about Northampton. I love the downtown with its lovely brick architecture and church spires, its independent bookstores, its cool kids on the street looking much like cool kids everywhere, but in the crisp fall air I am again reminded of my youth in Ann Arbor and Northfield, that carefree time of college and the few postcollege years when earning a living is less important than hanging out with the tribe.

We check out some shops. I buy a souvenir for friends back home and a book for myself and lust after all the things that I never want until I see them—like a cool folk-art car made out of wire. Along with the coveted artifacts are the so-called art forms that defy belief, like the framed paint-by-number pictures of birch-tree-by-the-lake landscapes. We can’t tell if they’re actual paint-by-numbers or are just painted to look like them, in some new-millennial campy homage to the “folk art” of the mid-20th century. Irony so ironic that it’s indistinguishable from the real thing.

Speaking of food (weren’t we?), we eat a wonderful dinner at Mulino’s, a little Italian restaurant. My head is full of the pictures of me living there, in that small arty city, my computer and my cat all I’d need to make a cozy home from which to run my editing business. Once again, I have to remind myself of the Impossible Seasons that were one (two) of the reasons I moved to California in the first place.

The third day passes in a flash of talks and walks and more food and meeting some of their friends. Sunday morning it’s all too soon time to pack up and put my travel plans in reverse. Gus Thugmuffin “helps” me unmake the bed and pack my duffel bag—he cuddles up in the bag at one point, in his Cute As a Button persona, but besides the fact that T&J would surely miss him, Pookie would never approve. We take a last walk down their country road, watching geese land in the newly cut-down cornfield, me inhaling the final eastern smells before returning home.

Before I know it, I’m plunged into Airport World once again. I’ve been especially worried about the trip home, because I have to change planes in Chicago. Also, there is only going to be a “snack” between Hartford and Chicago and then nothing until “dinner” between Chicago and S.F. But the snack turns out to be a box lunch of white chickenlike substance on a white doughy bun, so that provides bulk, and once again I’m saved by a cookie. My seatmate is a taciturn woman who is either as unsocial as I am or is terrified to fly, because she only starts babbling when we land safely in Chicago.

This is getting boring, and there’s no more food worth talking about, so let’s skip ahead, shall we? I arrive in S.F. and spend an anxious half hour trying to get from the new international terminal to the north terminal. (Somehow we and the baggage have landed in two different places.) I survive the interminable bus ride from the airport to Larkspur Landing, pay for my parking, drag my luggage to my car—thrilled that it hasn’t been vandalized—and as I drive home at 11:00 “real time”—“real time” is now East Coast time, and I have no idea when I made that particular adaptation—I feel like a subject in a physics experiment. If my destination = x, then I am always at x – y. It may just be the Dramamine again, but it’s as if time has stopped and there exists only space—more and more space between me and home.

But the physics of everyday life prevails, and I am allowed to arrive home. First thing I do is call Pookie, and after a long pause, he comes bumping hesitantly down the stairs, meowing weakly. Five days in solitary confinement has aged him. He comes and sniffs me and the duffel bag, finding indisputable olfactory evidence of Gus Thugmuffin. It’s like being caught with lipstick on my collar.

Seventeen e-mails await me—10 of them spam. Oh well. It’s good to be home, but it’s disconcerting that I’m not desperately grateful to be in my own world again. I mean, I’m glad to be on solid ground, to have the Travel portion of the program come to an end, but I guess I learned that it’s possible to partake of someone else’s world and not give up my own—to take my center with me instead of treating it like a major appliance I can only plug in at home. Viva Travel Girl! Where will she go next??

big dyke with a blue head

Well, I could take my happy ending and stop right there, but life has an annoying habit of changing right when you have everything just the way you want it. After I’d been home for a few days, I lapsed into a deep depression, or deepressionTM, with a soupçon of smoldering anger. I spent a lot of time lying in bed watching TV and talking back to annoying sit-com characters. I was practically on suicide watch—had to get rid of all my belts and shoelaces. (Pause while I laugh maniacally.)

I was having all sorts of physical symptoms—stomach, foot, hip, you name it. I wanted to smother my sorrows in food, but I was still trying to follow the blood type diet. I had managed to change only a couple of things—drinking soy milk on puffed rice instead of cow’s milk on Grape Nuts Flakes. I don’t think this a revolutionary diet change makes.

When I saw J next, I could barely drag myself in the door. I was dressed all in black—color-coordinating my mood. I don’t like going to therapy when I feel that way, because I’m afraid she’ll get all chipper and practical on me, and I find both of those things hard to handle when I’ve already decided I have nothing to live for.

J asked how long I’d been feeling depressed.

“… Since I talked to the psychic.”

J, bless her heart, laughed. I love that about her—no poker face. I had to laugh myself, then, despite my black mood. We decided it was the perfect beginning to a short story—if only I were a fiction writer, which I’m not. I sobered up quick. I hadn’t planned to tell her about it, it was too embarrassing.

[I had called this person, a “medical intuitive,” about my stomach symptoms, just in case there was something the doctor and the surgeon had missed. She can give people readings over the phone, she said, because she “doesn’t believe in time and space”—she only needs your name to “locate you in the universe.” I’m thinking, “So there’s no time and space, but there are names?” The psychic was silent for a while, tuning into my frequency, and then she said my “adrenals had lit up,” and she rattled off names and dosages of several vitamins and various concoctions I should be taking. She also said that my back and shoulder muscles are constricted and pressing on the vagus nerve, which goes down to the top of the stomach. She said this was “psychologically caused by hiding, holing up in yourself.” Now if this isn’t a perfect description of me, I don’t know what is, but I contend she could have got that information just from my terse replies to her questions. If you look up the word “monosyllabic” in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of me.]

A few days before, while sleeping the afternoon away, I’d dreamed about a woman with a shaved head whose whole head, including face, was dyed bright blue and had colorful tattoos all over it. In the dream, I thought she was strangely beautiful, but I wondered what she would do if she ever had to get a real job. The paint and tattoos were indelible—there was no going back. J pointed out that this was the part of me that I try to keep hidden—my exuberant dancing, painting self—and that I should focus on bringing that part out, rather than following depressive thoughts down the rabbit hole.

The thought of coming out of myself is terribly threatening—is it because my mother burst any bubble of exuberance that floated to the surface? J says the “why” is no mystery, but understanding is not enough. The important thing is to undo the somatic patterns. So we worked on that a bit—organizing and disorganizing the clenched fists, which reflexively returned to their clenching as soon as the exercise was over.

Throughout the session there had been noise coming from all directions, and it became impossible to ignore. There seemed to be a Noisy Man Convention coming and going in the hall outside the office. Someone in the construction company upstairs was banging on the floor as if trying to break through J’s ceiling. Loud motorcycles and cars revved up in the street right outside the window. I decided it was synchronicity in the classic sense—as in Jung’s story of the woman who was telling him her dream about a scarab beetle, and a scarab beetle came flying in the window. If there is no time and space but I am a name locatable in the universe, then it makes sense that I could be projecting all the inner noise of my body and mind into the surrounding landscape. A frivolous idea, perhaps, but no more so than many others I entertain.

At the end of the session, to get some energy moving before I left, J had me do some karate punches in the air. Usually, I “express” anger with a grunt and a muttered expletive. It felt good to be doing something physical, even if J wouldn’t let me use her as a punching bag. My assignment for the week was dancing, singing, deep breathing—movement of any kind. I promised her I’d start doing Taebo again. (Note to self….)

Afterward, feeling much better, I—no, I don’t go for a hike or run around the park—I treat myself to a beef taco and a margarita at Las Camellias and then stop for some Ben & Jerry’s on the way home. Plenty of time to start my exuberance training tomorrow. I watch “Freaks and Geeks,” stay up till midnight listening to “Loveline,” and feel just a little bit closer to being human.


But the good mood doesn’t last. The next day, I walk to the gas station to buy a Chronicle, and as I go to step off the curb—with the WALK sign flashing—a car screeches to a halt in front of me, half in the crosswalk. I veer around the car, thinking how close I may have come to being creamed, but before I can thank the universe for saving my life, the driver snarls, “You big dyke!” My stomach drops, but I ignore him, hoping he thinks I didn’t hear. My insides are like jelly, and I wonder why I let things like that bother me. Is it my own shame I’m reacting to? If he yelled “You big Democrat!” with the same snide tone, would I feel the same way? Obviously not.

I scurry home to my safe haven—if a big dyke can be said to scurry—and think about my dream of the woman with the blue head and colorful, indelible tattoos—the one who has put herself out there, who can’t get a real job anymore, who can’t go back. Is that person really inside me? And if she is, why am I hiding her, and what good is it doing me? If you’re already a big dyke, is it that much of a stretch to show off your blue head?

For the next two hours, I can’t stop thinking about that man and his casual insult. At first, I can only feel the shame of being different, of being despised by the world. But gradually the alchemy that began in the therapy session starts to do its magic, and I feel a stirring from within. I start to get pissed off. “Thank you, Mister Man,” I say, “for your succinct commentary. I hope you think I was on my way home to jump in bed with a beautiful woman. I hope I’m somehow a threat to your pathetic manhood, that you can’t stand to know there are women like me out here loose in the world.” As my chest inflates, my fists curl up. I sock the air. Take that, and that! I wake up inside. For once, I feel like a big dyke with a blue head—strangely beautiful—indelible—and I can’t go back.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #28 April 2003

July 7, 2009


Like a snowball rolling downhill, the mary’zine is picking up more and more stories from Back There, the U.P., Wish-Mich, the Land of the Giant Underground Fungus, We-Aren’t-In-Kansas-Anymore-Toto-We-Are-A-Little-Bit-Farther-East-Than-That.

So let us now dip into…

ye olde mailbaggie

First, a correction from my sister Barb, my official source of U.P. news and lore:

I enjoyed [the March 2003 ‘zine] thoroughly, especially the little footnotes. Correction though. The family who lost 4/5/6 brothers were the Theuerkauf’s…. I had the daughter in my classroom, so there’s your relationship. The brothers were overcome by methane gas that had built up in a manure pit [due to weather conditions]. The first went in, got disoriented and couldn’t climb out. The second went in to help the first get out and also got disoriented. The third went down with a rope and tried to get the other two hooked up to get them out, but dropped before he could do anything. And so on and so on. I don’t remember why the first one went down there in the first place….

I continue to be blown away by my family’s embrace of the ‘zine—which is to say, of me. How embarrassing to paint oneself as the Black Sheep, only to be welcomed back into the clan with élan. I’m not whack, I’m part of the pack! Here’s Barb again:

Brian called right after I finished reading the ‘zine and asked what I was doing. I told him and he got all excited, “I didn’t know Aunt Mary wrote stories. I want to read them.” He is going to start with #1. I read him most of this issue. I stopped at the part about War mostly because the kids in the background were demanding his attention. He laughed a lot and enjoyed it thoroughly. I also read [the snow-blowing story] to Bruce and Sheila, and then to Lorraine. So the ‘zine has a lot of miles on it so far. I will be dropping it off to K tomorrow night as I know she is anxious to read it.

Well, it sounds like Brian liked it, but I’m picturing the rest of them sitting through the reading the way our uncles used to sit through my mother’s slide shows of our trips out West—with glazed eyes and the occasional jerk of the head. It’s true that I can’t control how my readers respond, or with whom they share the ‘zine, or how the people with whom they share the ‘zine respond therewith, henceforth, or nevermore. It’s just a little scary to have no control over that.

The next night, Barb reported on the ‘zine’s reception by our other sis and her man.

I went to K and MP’s tonight and MP read it first as K and I were talking. We could hear him laughing in the computer room. K then read it…. She laughed a lot too.

You know, it’s great to hear that my niephlings and nephew-in-law and his girlfriend have joined the expanding tribe of ‘ziners, but there’s something about my elusive, undemonstrative bro-in-law cracking up at my silly jokes that just makes my day.

Moving now to the Lower P of the Two-P(eninsula) State Area, as promised in the last issue, I got all the juicy details about my friend KM’s U.P. party. From her dog. Yes, you heard me. I never know who (or what) in that household is going to write to me next. A while back it was Skelly, the plastic skeleton, who came to live on my bulletin board. Now Benny the (newly adopted) Corgi has written to me from snowbound lower Mich. while KM and husband D were selfishly vacationing without him in South Carolina. (He writes that “in a recent call home, K says she can see why the South lost.”) He thoughtfully enclosed a picture of himself under a Christmas tree. Oddly, he referred to KM as his “boss”; I gather he provides security for the household, or at least for her feet under the computer.

In his letter, and in a subsequent e-mail, he conveyed a number of messages from KM, which I will combine for the sake of efficiency (publisher’s prerogative):

First, she said to tell you that your descriptions of born-again-UPdom were wonderful and moving. The first arrived shortly before she and D gave their “14th Annual Black-Tie Pajama Overnight Party” for their four closest friends, one of whom was born and raised in Ironwood. Of course, K’s parents are also from the U.P. Anyway, each year this party has a theme, and this year it was [yes] the UP.

First, D made a replica of the Mackinac [pronounced Mackinaw] Bridge as the table centerpiece—with real working lights. They decorated the house like an actual highway leading to the UP, which was in the dining room behind closed doors. A roll of black paper with a yellow line down the center stretched from the front porch into the house, and they made highway signs and hung them all along it, like “West Michigan Cocktail Exit” and “River Rouge Rest Stop Exit.” On the highway were little logging trucks and a little 4 x 4 with a dead deer—well, a wind-up dead deer—in the back. The four guests had to bring their dolls “dressed UP.” I’d better explain about the dolls. Several years ago K made each of their four guests a doll with a photograph of the guest’s own face ironed on and dressed the dolls in elegant clothes and they were seated at the table when the guests arrived. It was a grand surprise—and very eerie. Now the guests must bring the dolls to each “Black Tie Overnight Party.” This year, one doll was dressed as a fisherhunterperson, one in mosquito netting… and… I forget the other two. But this year the guests also brought two additional dolls with K and D’s faces ironed on them—K was a dance hall girl from Calumet and D was a Finnish radio announcer named Toivo…. K and D were very thrilled to have their own dolls at last.

After their dinner (featuring the Michigan state bird—the Robin—or rather, Cornish hens disguised as Robins) under the Mackinac Bridge, the dolls performed at Da Superior Theatre (a large cardboard box decorated with pine branches). They were given the outline for a play titled “Speed Limit 50” and they had to improvise with their dolls as if they were driving along U.S. 2 in the UP and explain why a Speed Limit 50 sign had a bullet hole in it. Actually, D had found this road sign many years ago and saved it, and it served as the main prop for the evening. I understand that there was so much hilarity that the plot kind of got lost, but in the end, one of the guests/dolls revealed that the bullet hole came about because a young UP girl had wanted to get her ears pierced and her boyfriend did it for her with a pistol on the side of the highway. Well, I guess you had to be there….

In the morning, when they exchanged tuxedos for bathrobes (I’m assured that this is not kinky, just old-fashioned fun), they had PASTIES [rhymes with NASTIES] for breakfast. That’s right—K had some shipped down from Calumet. Oh, she told me to tell you to correct footnote 7 in your publication of 12/02—pasties are always made with beef, at least in her family!

[Ed. note: There’s more, but let him get his own ‘zine if he wants to go on and on….]

Woof, woof, woof, woof,

Mr. Ben Corgi

After I received the first letter, I replied to Doggie Ben as follows:

Dear Ben,

Thank you very much for sending me a letter and a picture, instead of… how can I say this… yourself. That’s how I met up with your cousin (?) Skelly. Just POP—lands in my mailbox one day. I’m afraid you would not be very happy here. This household already has one mangy, hair-shedding animal. And then there’s Pookie….

Skelly—whom I believe you’ve never met, but maybe we will all have a big happy reunion one day—is doing fine. He’s kind of a lookout, like the guy at the top of a ship’s mast watching for Land. He gazes out the window—oh wait, I just checked and he’s looking the wrong way, damn! Never get a plastic skeleton to do a dog’s job, eh Bennysan?

Besides providing security, you appear to be a competent social secretary. I am a little surprised that your mistress would leave her correspondence in the hands/paws of an employee, but I’m sure you’re a part of the family by now, right?

OK then. I appreciate the updates on the new addition to the household (that would be you) and the nitty gritty about the U.P. party. Fitting that it took place in the winter, no? The description of all the special touches was hilarious. Also, I stand corrected on the ingredients of the dreaded Pastie. All I can remember is a  mouthful of mush surrounded by crust. Nuff said….

[Forgot to tell you that when I go back to visit Wish-Mich in June, KM is going to ask her pilot husband to fly her UP to have lunch with me! Maybe I’ll take her to Schloegel’s for Swedish meatballs and pie]

Please tell Ms. K that I would be deLIGHTED and HONored to receive her by airplane between June 14 and 19. I will also be there on the 13th and 20th, but I specifically planned my itinerary to include two fish fry outings with the clan. Why is the perch becoming extinct while pasties keep proliferating? Answer me that. My sister says the perch have been “overfished,” but I’ve never heard of any “overpastieing” going on. I think that says it all, don’t you?

Anyway, it would be SO COOL to have lunch with a jetsetter such as your boss. Not quite the same as flying to Paris on the Concorde, but she will be received like royalty. My hometown of Menominee used to have a nice little airport—I’m assuming it’s still there—that has its own claim to fame. A helicopter company called Enstrom was headquartered there, and two big names from the ‘60s, F. Lee Bailey and Rudi Name-Escapes-Me (the guy who designed the topless dress with the crisscross straps; never really caught on, more’s the pity). I think one or both of them owned the company. But that’s neither here nor there. (Be right back, have to pee.)

yo, pookemon here. shes writin to a DOG now? that takes the cake. I just wanted to give you a friendly warning. STAY AWAY, DAWG. if you come around here I swear ill open up a can of whoopass, you hear me?

Well, it’s been nice corresponding with you. I can hardly wait to find out who’s going to write the next letter for her—the potted plant? hahaha. Have a nice life. If you like Michigan in winter, you’re going to adore spring.

Mare de la Zine

WAR {??What War??} TIMES (Special Mopping Up Edition)

There are Known Knowns.
There are things we
Know that we Know.
There are Known
Unknowns. That is to say,
There are things that we
Know we don’t Know. But
There are also Unknown
Unknowns. There are things
We don’t Know we don’t

—Donald Rumsfeld

S.F. Bay Area Car Bumper War News Update

The first and most popular bumper sticker to come out in the weeks and months before Operation Here We Come To Liberate You Whether You Like It or Not was the obvious:


Then people started to cut the sticker in half to read:


But my favorite one, which I saw only once, is the same sticker cut down even further:


Of course, W refers to our quasi-elected president.

Then bumper sticker #1 was supplanted by


Cutting this sticker down to Stop W would work just as well. You really can’t go wrong putting any sort of negative word in front of W: Evict, Eject, Eviscerate

My contribution to anti-W-war bumper literature is


But things move fast in this time of One Superpower Fits All, so getcher red-hot up-to-the-minute bumper sticker here:


I certainly hope you enjoyed that little war as much as I did. I know it was fun, exciting and WAY too short, just a teaser really, no contest at all and we’re just getting nicely warmed up, so fortunately it looks like we may be able to make a case for bombing the sh*t out of Syria, so we can do it all over again. Say, why don’t we just make it a lifestyle, we could no doubt create enough enemies to keep the war machine lubed for decades, we are so good at it. We are such assholes. I can see that a large part of my life’s work for the next 10 years will be keeping my son’s ass out of the service. Do they honestly think I suffered two months of bed rest, natural childbirth, two years of nursing, 3 years of coop nursery school and the cooking of 5,379,24 hamburgers I didn’t want just to send him off to get shot at for the sake of Halliburton’s contracts? I don’t think so.
—S. Lockary

Hey, is this thing on? The war, I mean. Geez. You get a perfectly good war-related ‘zine all written and ready to be hauled off to Copy Central, and they claim it’s Finnish. What do the Finns have to do with it? They’ve never hurt anybody, have they? Finland isn’t even in that part of the… Oh, “finished”? … Never mind.

Anyway, pretend you’re reading the following before W proclaimed the Iraqi regime to be “not in existence.”   Dirt in the fuel line… just blowed it away.

my own private Vietnam

In one of our nightly e-mails, I asked Barb if she had participated in any April Fool’s Day pranks, either as a perpetrator or as a victim. She said she couldn’t work anything into her science classes this year, but she told me about a trick she played in Language Arts a few years ago.

I told my students a story about a rabbit taking a trip. I started the story by having one student hold a string. Then as I told the story of where he travels, I unwound the string around students, through chairs, under desks, etc…. until I had the whole class tied up. I told the story 5 minutes before the bell and kept it going until the bell rang. Dropped the string, said April Fools, and walked out.

Now, you may be wondering, what do 25 groaning, giggling, struggling middle school kids who have to get untangled from their desks and each other before they can rush off to their next class have to do with Vietnam? For that matter, what does Vietnam have to do with anything? Aren’t we All Iraq, Al Jazeera, All the Time these days? These are All excellent questions.

I guess what strikes me about the image of the strung-along-and-then-abandoned-to-their-own-devices kids is that, like a lot of people, I’ve been a mass of conflicting feelings about the war. I’m tied up in knots, and W has left the building. I know who the Fool is, but where’s the joke? I’m angry at this self-righteous, propagandizing, Bible-thumping administration. I’m afraid of red, orange, and magenta terrorism alerts to come. Horrified and helpless over the deaths of soldiers and civilians in a cause the rest of the world All Jeers at us for. Afraid of further upheaval in the Middle East and beyond. Afraid for Israelis, Palestinians, for Americans thought to be condoning our government’s actions. Afraid for everyone, really, who is inextricably entwined in this mess. And who isn’t? So anger, fear, horror, helplessness, fear, fear and fear kind of sum up my response.

I’ve had to ration my media attention—I surf past CNN and I’m selective about what I read. I can usually handle the 10 minutes of BBC News that starts off the hour on NPR. (British voices are soothing, regardless of what they’re reporting.) It’s like being on continuous nighttime patrol of the perimeter of my consciousness: I will let this in but not that, not right now. I try not to let guilt take hold, not to despise my privilege, my sunny days, my little pleasures in life. What can I do about other people’s lives and deaths, anyway? Immolating myself in the town square won’t help anyone. If a tank were to come rolling down Bellam Blvd. (out to crush Circuit City?) I might find it in my guts to stand in front of it, like the Chinese student in Tiananmen Square. But I don’t really see that happening. I do notice that whenever I hear an airplane overhead, I hope that it (a) stays overhead and (b) doesn’t drop anything on me. And I think about what it would be like to live with that as a reality and not just a paranoid fantasy.

I’ve discovered I’m past the black-and-white thinking of my youth. Or maybe the world has become more complicated, more multilayered, and even more controlled by the powers that be—One Big Superpower in bed with the Three or Four Big Multinational Corporations. But I doubt that it’s only the world that’s changed. You hear old people say, “The older I get, the more I realize I don’t know.” That always seemed curious to me. Like—aren’t you going backwards, dude? But now I know—it’s not that I’ve been rolled up in mothballs and put away, or that I’ve stopped paying attention, or that I haven’t learned anything. I’m not just waiting for death-and-taxes while young people take to the streets in their idealistic fervor. Au contraire. Young people are doing what they’re supposed to do, which is to harangue the rest of us, and I’m learning that age brings a different perspective. It’s not necessarily about losing touch or sticking to the old ways. I’m in plenty of touch, and rather than cling to the old ways, I’m having to dispense with many of them—the old “antiwar-isn’t-everybody?-pro-Mao-pro-Castro-pro-the-victory-of-the-proletariat” ways from a time when it seemed obvious who were the good guys and who were the bad.

It may be that Iraq is categorically different from Vietnam, that 2003 is not only a different millennium but also a different mindset than 1968. But I don’t think so. Some things have changed globally, there have been political shifts, but the human heart is the same. We still try to sort out right from wrong, choose the least of several evils, and in the end it still feels like it’s all out of our hands, like the last presidential election. Politics is a legitimate realm, and those who are drawn to it, especially those who want to counteract the selfish interests of any elite, should certainly take part. But I want to investigate my own responses, go where my inner compass (guide, road map) takes me, find the common thread that connects me with other people in a real way, not just as one head talking to another. Dial right down the center, baby. C-A-L-L-H-E-A-R-T.

Is this typical American—or at least Californian—self-involvement? Maybe. But moving up the food chain to where you don’t have to think about where your next meal is coming from or who’s going to kick down your door and kill you brings the privilege and responsibility of focusing on other things. And that’s what the mary’zine is for me—a way to articulate, shape, and share what touches me, from the ridiculous to the sublime. But let’s move on.

As I write this, the latest news is that Baghdad has fallen, or at least the statue of Saddam has been toppled, yay for our team, and a few Iraqi men are stomping on his likeness, much to the delight and relief of millions of people around the world who want more than anything to believe that it’s going to turn out all right after all, that Arabs and Arab sympathizers everywhere are going to thank us for Operation You Say Invasion We Say Liberation, and radical Islam and fundamentalist Christianity are going to revert to the kinder, gentler religions of their founders. But we’ve heard lots of stories out of this war that were retracted the next day, so we continue to hold our collective breaths as we go about our “normal” lives—working, taking care of children or ungrateful cats, passing along Internet jokes, enjoying the warmer weather, and wishing, hoping, and praying that the new threat of ground-to-air missiles aimed at incoming commercial flights at SFO is just more media hype.

So now I’m going to honor my inner whatjamacallit and leave the topic of the day to write about Vietnam, or at least about a little piece of that seemingly ancient history that has gripped me in recent days.

I watched a documentary on PBS called “Daughter from Danang,” about a 7-year-old Vietnamese girl who was sent over here during Operation Baby Airlift in 1975 because her father was an American soldier and it was feared that the Communists would kill all those children. She (Hiep, renamed Heidi; I’ll call her H) was raised by a single woman in Kentucky, and her adoptive mother fully Americanized her, warning her not to tell anyone she was half-Vietnamese. (No wonder: She grew up in the town where the KKK started and still has a visible presence.) All her life, H wanted to find her mother, and she finally did. At about age 30 she traveled to Vietnam (with an interpreter and a documentary camera crew) for a 7-day visit to meet her mother and other relatives. She was thrilled and happy, and her mother was even more thrilled and more happy, because of course she had distinct memories of her little girl, whereas H didn’t remember much of anything from that time.

When H comes on the screen for the first time, I’m startled to see that, except for a slightly fuller face, she’s the spittin’ image of my aunt Judy on my father’s side. Methinks her G.I. father must have been Irish. And she has a southern accent, which is also disconcerting. She’s an all-American girl, ex-cheerleader, everything.

In Vietnam she is surrounded by relatives and other villagers 24/7, and her mother never gives her a moment to herself, she’s all kisses and “I love you, I’m so happy,” clings to her hand as if she’s never going to let go, insists on sleeping in the same bed with her. The family is very poor, but they clearly have a strong bond, and family is everything to them—there’s a shrine to all the parents, grandparents, and other ancestors all the way back to… wherever it goes back to. In contrast, H has lived her American life with many material comforts, but her adoptive mother was abusive—rarely touched her except to hit her—and perversely cut off all ties with her when H was in college. So to say she is undergoing a culture shock on this visit is quite an understatement.

After a while, you can see that H is getting more and more uncomfortable with the constant crowds surrounding her, her mother’s unwavering, enveloping attention, the heat, the fish smells of the market, having to keep a smile on her face and not able to speak directly to anyone, because they speak little English and she speaks no Vietnamese. (They keep trying to teach her to say “I love you,” but the syllables are awkward in her mouth.) And through all this she has a camera trained on her! So she starts to crack, starts to question the wisdom of having undertaken her search. She’d had a romantic image of what awaited her back in Vietnam, but the reality is very different. All of the relatives are blunt and unabashed about asking H for money. They seem to assume she’s going to take her mother back to the U.S. to live with her or at least send a monthly stipend to help the huge extended family. H’s eyes widen in increasing dismay as she sits with this family of strangers who have a lifetime of duties and obligations mapped out for her.

I have been drawn into this story from the beginning, and not only because of the superficial resemblance of H to my aunt and my limited acquaintance with Vietnam from my neighbors Kim and Thé and Lee and Trang. There’s a deeper resonance that I can’t explain. I feel like I am H as she becomes more and more upset and finally looks up at the cameraman or the interpreter and says, “I can’t do this.” The family insists that this is the Vietnamese way—if she had been raised there she would never have questioned her family obligations. She starts sobbing over the unexpectedness and impossibility of the situation, like the ultimate Be Careful What You Wish For, and one of the older male relatives says (in Vietnamese), “She cries easily, doesn’t she?”

H runs outside to get away from everyone, and the mother follows her and tries to hug her. Heidi moves farther away. “No! Leave me alone!” The pain on her mother’s face during all this is indescribably poignant. It’s clear that it was the hardest decision of her life to send her Amerasian daughter away to America, and now she’s losing her all over again.

I was initially put off by the mother’s constant clinging to H and her belief that they could instantly return to being the loving mother and child they had once been. She matter-of-factly assumes that she will go back to America with H, maybe not right away, but in time, and they will be “together forever”—she stresses “This is FOREVER, FOREVER, FOREVER” as she stares deeply into H’s eyes. I am getting agitated at this point, just as H is. To her credit, the mother finally seems to come to grips with the fact that her long-lost daughter is now “American” and can’t understand the traditional ways. But she is still visibly suffering and obviously holds out hope for a happy ending.

But H goes back to her home on a military base in Rhode Island where she lives with her American soldier husband (irony noted) and two young daughters. For weeks she keeps her children close by her side and tries to forget she ever took that painful journey back to the past. She can’t even explain to her husband what happened or what she’s feeling.

And having porously absorbed her dismay and inarticulate horror at having “opened this can of worms” (the experience has definitely put her off searching for her father), I feel as if I too know what it means to be an immigrant with ties to the mother country that I reject but cannot reconcile. Clearly, my feelings of identification are very much shaped by my own projections, my “what if’s.” (What if I found out I was adopted and my real mother was Kim next door? How could I possibly think of her as my mother?) For me the documentary goes well beyond being just another sad, interesting, or bizarre story, something that has happened to someone else.

The end of the film shows Heidi 2 years later. Her Vietnamese family have written several letters to her asking for money, and she hadn’t answered any of them. She says she’s closed the door on them—“but not locked it.” It’s kind of shocking that she has simply withdrawn. Despite my identification with her, I guess I still thought she had to do something. But I also know that I probably would have done the same thing. CAN’T DEAL. CAN’T DEAL.

I had therapy the day after seeing the documentary, and I didn’t know what I was going to talk about. There seemed to be nothing to say about “me”; all I could think about was H and her “family.” So I started with that, but it didn’t seem to take me anywhere. I kept thinking I was wasting the session, that I was being self-indulgent. This was H’s story, not mine. Did everything have to come back to me, me, me?

Rambling on to J, starting and stopping, questioning why I’m talking about this, I feel like I’m going in circles, or tied up in that April Fool’s string. Finally, some questions start to come clear, and with the questions come clues to my interest in the story.

What are H’s obligations to her original family?

What is “family”? Is blood thicker than water, or do distance, language, and life experience trump the biology?

Are we all just human with a few cultural differences (you say potAto, I say potAHto) that don’t really mean anything—except when they do? When you’re gay, you cheerfully and gratefully adopt the idea that “family” is not necessarily biology-based, that the family you choose as an adult is your real family. (Actually, you don’t even choose that family, because everybody comes with other ties—parents, friends, ex-lovers—but that’s a rant for another day.)

And what is “America”? Is it the land of the free and the home of the brave, or is that only on game days and the Fourth of July? Are we still dreaming the American dream? Or are we the uprooted ones trampling on centuries of ancient wisdom? Is our diversity our strength, or will it be our undoing? Does multiculturalism add to or detract from our nationhood, our common origin as immigrants, either forced to come here as slaves or indentured servants, or begging to come here for asylum or a better life? What is our responsibility to the rest of the world, much of which we’ve deliberately left behind? What the hell are we supposed to do about Iraq, Vietnam or anywhere else? Are we the world in microcosm, or are we history’s footnote, its next debauched Roman Empire?

As the therapy clock is ticking, and I’m trying to find my way through this morass of questions and abstractions and feelings and the frustration of not knowing what’s going on with me, wondering like the kids in Barb’s class, how did this happen?, 5 minutes ago I was just sitting here at my desk, minding my own business, listening to a nice story about a rabbit, and now I’m “tangled up in blue,” creating by trial and error my own private string theory even though I’m not equipped to do the math… I think I feel the end of the sentence coming on… J is patiently helping me look for the thread/string that will lead me back to myself and untangle me from the jumble I’m in, because the one place we all need to be right now, she says, is in our deepest heart.

Suddenly I take a turn, it’s just like painting, when you’ve been grumbling over how nothing feels right and suddenly there’s a curve in the road and you’re right where you need to be. I find myself telling J that I can relate to H’s story so much because I am intimately familiar with the fear of being sucked back into poverty, back to the place of my traumatizing childhood, back to having to hide my true self and my foreign influences and unholy aspirations from an oppressive regime (Mom); the fear of discovering that my middle-class pretensions and independence were a temporary fantasy, a respite from reality just like college only a lot longer—that I might still disappear back into my upper peninsular fate, my own private Vietnam.

So that’s the unlikely connection that brings everything into focus. I left my “Vietnam” under much less dramatic circumstances than H, of course, by choice and not at 7 but at 17, but there’s something similar about the fear of “going back” and “getting stuck” in a landscape that is viscerally familiar but no longer habitable by my “American” self. I know it seems inflated of me to project myself into a truly momentous story like Heidi’s, but I’m talking about the feeling level, where our childhood fears still dwell regardless of the proof-pudding of “reality.”

And yet… this is what’s so strange, what I still can’t seem to take in… my own private Vietnam has turned out to be the opposite of Heidi’s quest for her roots. Clearly, she didn’t have the best home life in Kentucky, and she had every reason to believe she was going to be reunited with her Shangri-La of a past. I, on the other hand, had tried to put the past behind me to the point where, to set foot on that soil again would be my undoing, as if the Giant Underground Fungus had a magnetic pull that would erase all the data I had stored in me and return me to the land of limitation and obligation. It was as if I were doomed to a fate that had been set in motion at my birth and could not be changed.

So I wasn’t looking to hook up again with the past, as Heidi did, and I didn’t consider my trip back to my homeland last fall to be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, as she did, but what I found there… SURPRISE… was the family that had been there all along, in plain sight: the family of my peers and heirs, the past not completely overcome but contained and subdued, shoulders pinned to the mat, no longer the obligation of FOREVER in the doomed sense but the promise of something like Forever, in that way that makes you feel safe and happy, not trapped in a room with the walls moving in on you. Barb and K were always dear to me, but they seemed overshadowed by the looming presence, even in memory, of Mom and her inability to see us as separate beings.

Even a couple of years ago, I would have taken a very different lesson from Heidi’s story. It would have confirmed for me the necessity of migrating to the new country, the land of opportunity, and never looking back. How many times do we have to hear You can’t go home again before we take it to heart?

But I did go home again, and, far from encountering a “Vietnam” of strangers masquerading as my long-lost kin, I found “America” there. Not America as the imperialist, war-mongering, Christian nation trying to impose democracy (so many oxymorons, so little time) on the backward peoples of the world, but the America of the past-and-future double helix, the native-born and the foreign-born entwined, mixing if not melting in the same pot. In my absence my sisters had not only survived but thrived beneath the threshold of my awareness, like that Giant Underground Fungus again, a fungus for good, not an axis for evil, a cross-cultural bridge that could be traveled in both directions, you could go there and come back!

The string of connection keeps wrapping around everyone in my life and every stranger who’s a relative I haven’t met yet—the ‘zine and their response to it, the e-mails a live wire going back and forth, the depth of understanding despite years of distance, the same giggly jokes and memories but with children and grandchildren and great nieces and nephews added on, and blooooood and marriage and child support in multiples of 3 or 4, everybody ending up at Gramma’s (my baby sister’s!) house on birthdays and holidays, a family which, however you slice it, is connected by the strings of shared experience and feeling and sometimes by blood too, but blood is not the main ingredient of those ties. Mother and Father, after all, are not blood, but they form a heart bond just like any other lover and lover, friend and friend, lesbian middle-aged woman and cat, Jewish therapist and nominally Christian Uppity-Midwesterner turned hopeful S.F. Bay Area neo-bohemian type who sits typing this long-playing record in a microcosmic neighborhood of Vietnamese, black, Hispanic and white adults, kids, and trash-talking teenagers of every hue—every person, every family struggling to make a living, to make sense of life and get through the night, the day, and the night after that.

Is this the point?—that we’re all wrapped up in this string together, in the sheer complexity, the insolvability of our differences, whether mediated by blood or culture or injustice, that we must look for the common humanity beneath it all and be as open as we can to the differences and similarities, not taking the flag of our old or adopted country so seriously that we believe we have the right to liberate or kill at will?

Close to the end of the therapy session, I find myself telling J that I have faith in humanity. There have always been wars and there will always be wars, but despite it all, hope and love, so seemingly fragile and easily suppressed, like a jackboot crushing a delicate flower, will always live. How else could she and I be feeling this bond with each other and with the friends, family, and strangers who touch us so deeply? I look at J; we’re both feeling wrung out, like we’ve made a long journey together. It seems a miracle that’s we’ve traversed all that confusion and my insistence on talking about a film of someone else’s life that’s barely suited for the analogy I have thrust upon it. I understand now how therapy can be a place for exploration, for true learning and discovery, not just problem-solving. I feel blessed.

And I continue to walk the middle ground, as J has taught me. I’m Open when I wannabe, Closed but not Locked when I gottabe, maybe even Locked once in a while, retreating to my bed with a bag of double-dipped chocolate-covered peanuts and a good book. I shall traverse to the best of my ability “my” world, “their” world, whichever world I find myself in, until I get called home, or the cows do. Let’s all lose the self-flagellation about our middle-class American privilege, especially those of us who are only nominally m.c., the salt and pepper of the earth, our feet planted in the soil and our immigrant backgrounds. We all have our own private Vietnam, our childhood abuse of whatever stripe, we’re all in the closet about one damn thing or another, whether it’s our ethnic background in a KKK town or our cross-clothing-crisis in noncoastal America. I’m no rah-rah patriot, but I think America truly is the future—America being not the puppeteer government of smirking oilmen but all of us Americans, the immigrants as well as those who were already here when the invading/liberating Europeans came a-knockin’. Our real privilege in this land of the free is to make a life beyond survival, to create a new brew of all the world’s cultures and human endeavors. What that means is up to each of us to figure out. No blueprint, no scroll of rules handed down by the ancestors, except the obvious 10 and the Golden one. America is a contradictory land, with ideals that can be twisted every which way and leaders determined to carry out George Orwell’s worst imaginings. But I believe that we are bound together by stronger ties than the ones we find ourselves struggling against. Like the Giant Underground Fungus—yes!—we are connected at a much deeper level than we know. Let’s use that bond to get us out of this tangled mess and on to the rest of our lives before the final bell rings.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #26 January 2003

June 28, 2009

I’m like a book. I want to be read.
—D. Dworkin

merry lu’s holidaze

Dear friends and home-ies, I want you to know me,
my Christmas, December, intensive (remember?),
my old friends and new, and relatives too,
but all of it’s swirlin’, I ain’t no Merlin
magician gone fishin’,
can’t tie it all neatly in parables sweetly,
so forget the flappin’, hold off on the rappin’,
I’m about to stop rhymin’ and see what’s been happenin’….

I feel like I did when I saw my therapist, J, a few days after the 7-day painting intensive. There was so much to tell her that I veered between fast-talking the details and throwing out a few insights like a lifeline to a drowning man, but the only one drowning was me. She thought I was in the middle of something, and I thought I had already gone through it, even though I couldn’t say exactly what “it” was. We almost didn’t make it, she was trying her hardest but I was way out there,
past her lifeline and mine, or maybe the drowner was throwing the line
to the one on shore and wondering what she was waiting for.

The rhythm is still with me, can’t stop it or drop it,
so please bear with me while I make the transition,
I’m rockin’ my chair but can’t get transmission,
I wish I could mind-meld, directly deposit
the thoughts in my closet, but I guess that’s what language is for,
to awkwardly say what no man has said before…

I’m still straddling two worlds, like a tale of two cities, or make that one suburb and a remote small town, which in its own way is also the center of everything. What is remote to one is birth, life, and death to another—so there’s really no such thing as remote, or even “other,” just gazillions of centers all dancing on the head of a pin with how many angels.

My sister K has read all the ‘zines now and passed them on to hubby MP. After reading “Lost weekday” (#11), about going to the dentist and pukin’ and peein’ myself (her favorite story, go figure), she and Barb and I got to bond in a sisterly way over our shared peed adventures. Barb writes:

K said she feels our lives are pretty mundane but you probably enjoy knowing that we pee our pants too, and you are normal in that respect.

I love that my main claim to being normal is that I pee my pants.

MP is reported to have “mixed feelings” about the ‘zine (he was shocked, shocked by what I was into when Mom was trying to get me to drink coffee), but he keeps reading, so way to go, bro!

Later, Barb reported that, after reading them all,

MP said to tell you, you don’t need a psychiatrist because you have us. Then again maybe you do because you DO have us.

Everybody’s a comedian.

My Christmas was very different this year. Usually I bah-humbug my way through December and then, on Christmas Eve, literally at the 11th hour, I get suddenly sentimental, turn on the choral carols on the radio, and wish I had done more for my fellow human. This year I got started early by sending a check to Barb to buy presents for my little nieces and nephews. Only problem is, I forgot about the ones I haven’t met yet, so it’s eight not four little ones, but B stretched the check to cover them all. P&C, my usual Xmas cohorts, were out of town for the holiday, so it was a vicarious Christmas chez Maree and Pookee. Late Xmas Eve, I got an e from Barb, who described in great detail the planning, the giving, the receiving, the smiles, the surprises, the love, the love. About the little ones:

I made sure the kids knew which presents were from their Great Aunt Mary and it was repeated several times with Wyatt saying “This is the Aunt Mary I haven’t met yet,” and Summer triumphantly announcing, “I have.” … You were even talked about when they were sitting in the kitchen eating their lunch after all the present opening was done.

It’s weird knowing these people, having them know me, as if I’ve gotten remarried and started a new family, except the new family is pretty much the old family with a few deletions and several add-ons. P thinks I’m “in love with the idea” of having reestablished the connection with my UPeeps; sure, I do love the idea, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. I always knew the connection was there, it was just a matter of the planets getting realigned or something. It’s not about “going back” in any sense, back in space or time, it’s about being right where I am and letting the treasure that’s been there all along reveal itself. (I hope I didn’t use that exact same sentence last time, but if I did, c’est la vie, déjà vu, tant pis, pommes frites, oo la la.)

It’s no surprise to me that my sisters are generous and funny. It’s just that I was trying to put my own jigsaw puzzle together over here, not realizing that my pieces were part of the mixture, fitting neatly into the bigger picture created by my family, my friends and neighbors, my town, state, and country, my world, my universe. I’m only one center, just a renter who thinks she’s an owner, we’re all on loan here, but it’s still all mine and all theirs and theirs, multiplied multiple times… but finally I get it, the dimensions are infinite, the holographic whole is at once a goal and a done deal, nothing to reveal, just return to the One from which we all sprung, our ashes to AshLand or dust to rust. Doesn’t mean I have an answer to take to the bank or save me from cancer, no book deal or contract or stardom or fame, just me and my name, my rhymin’ so lame, the ‘zine, the queen-of-the-table game, it’s all the same. Wave or particle don’t really matter, we’re neither here nor there but everywhere. No doubt. Love in, love out.

This Christmas I went on a tipping spree. That’s dollars, not cows, for you Wisconsinites. I figure that rewarding the working people will have a ripple effect. Jon Carroll has an annual column in the Chronicle about his own invention, the Untied Way. It’s “untied” because it’s random. You take as much money as you can spare out of your bank account and give $20 bills out to the first however many people ask for money on the street. This is fine. I’ve had some good encounters on the street myself, when I gave willingly and not out of fear or guilt. A couple months ago, I came across a guy selling the Street Sheet in downtown S.F. He was sitting in the doorway of the (closed) restaurant I had wanted to eat lunch in. He was polite and cheerful, and when I passed him two or three times over the next half hour, we greeted each other and he told me about Lori’s Diner up the street, where I ended up having lunch. I had given him a dollar on our first encounter, but he was exuding such good cheer that after lunch I went back and gave him $10 “for the next 10 people who don’t give you anything.” He was inordinately pleased, considering it wasn’t exactly a fortune. But it felt to me like a true exchange, as if we were rewriting the equation of desperate beggar + reluctant passerby = resentment all around. This was more like real person + real person = humanity.

But at Christmas I refocused my efforts and gave extra (or first-time) tips to the person who delivers my Sunday Times, my pleasant and conscientious mailman, a couple of waiters and valet parkers, my new haircutter, and even my favorite grocery store clerk (Nanette at United Market—tell her Mary sent you). The wind might get taken out of my sails when I have my taxes done and realize I’ve been thinking of all the money in my bank account as mine, when a large portion of my income this year didn’t have withholding taken out. But I still like the principle. It’s only a few dollars extra to me, but it’s meaningful to them, in both tangible and intangible ways. If a smile can send someone on her or his way with a lighter step, think what $20 can do.

The first song I heard when I turned on the radio on Christmas morn was by the Flaming Lips:

Do you realize… that everyone you know someday will die?
Do you realize… that we’re floating in space?
Do you realize… the sun doesn’t go down, it’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning ‘round?

I’d have to say Yes, Yes, and Yes, but it’s good to be reminded. The next song was some cock-schlock by a band called, with eerie accuracy, Disturbed. I switched to Alice and then to KALW, but they were all choral and Crosby, so I had to disrespect the Bing and settle for a silent morning. Decided to compose my own soundtrack on the Mac: ‘Zine attack!

December was especially notable for all the human contact. I was with people for, like, 10 days straight! I handled it pretty well, but I did have to bail on a brunch in Tiburon because I was starting to come unglued. Terry and Jean were here from Massachusetts, and they had to cancel their trip up the coast because of the rain, so we got to spend more time together. It was fun, fun, fun till Daddy took the T bird away (and the J bird). Besides the daily lunches during the intensive, we dined with Diane L. and Diane D. at Garibaldi’s in the city, and T, J, and I had our farewell dinner at the Buckeye in Mill Valley, where I take all my painting lovelies. I wore my blue hair for the occasion, praying it wouldn’t rain—blue rivulets running down my face, not the look I’m going for. We had a sweet-sorrow good-bye, but it’s so much better to be sorry to see someone go than to be relieved you’ve got your blessed solitude back.

Next fall, P&C will retire early, move to Oregon, and spend their declining years reclining in a house they bought on the Rogue River. P has been trying to get me to move up there too. When I complain about the Caveman ambience of Grants Pass (Caveman Motors, billboards with Cavemen dragging Cavewomen by the hair, etc.), she counters that I could settle nearby in the more refined community of Ashland, the Shakespeare festival place.

P is the executrix of my will, so every year or so I revised my detailed instructions to her regarding the distribution of my worldly goods. But I’ve never figured out if I want to REmain or CREmain, as it were. So one night I say to her, “I still don’t know what to do about ‘the body’.”

P (casual as can be): “I’ve already decided.”

Me: “Oh?”

P. “You’re going to Oregon.”

I howled, “That is SO against my EXPRESS WISHES,” and she just laughed.

A few days later, when T&J and I were having our farewell dinner (smoked pork sandwiches, onion rings, chicken salad, butterscotch crème brûlée), Jean said she wished they could put me in their suitcase and take me back to Massachusetts. I had just told them the story of P hauling my assh to Oregon, so I said, “Maybe you could get P to split the ashes with you.” Ha ha ha. One of them pointed out that I’d be happier with them because they live in ASHFIELD, get it? It only took me 2 days to realize the alternative is ASHLAND, so I’d say it’s a wash. That doesn’t even take into account my sisters’ possible wishes. Barb, in fact, protests, “Why Oregon? What is in Oregon? Will I have to say Mary gone to Oregon?… Or will it be Mary moved her ash to Ashfield?”

Quiet geek in Lake Oregon… Has a nice ring to it.

Barb pointed out that there are still three family plots in Riverside Cemetery where Mom, Dad, and baby Mike are buried. Mom’s ashes are tucked in at the foot of Mike’s grave, so there’s plenty of room left for me to have my “space.” I’m considering it. Having overcome my anti-hometown sentiments, I’m verging on the gung-ho (ya think?).

In fact, this just in… I’ve made my decision—or the decision that was a foregone conclusion unknown to my former illusion has come into view: Post-this-life, I’m headed back to the U.P. to rejoin my original nuclear family, yes, the prodigal electron comes whirling back into orbit, knowing, finally, that it can be the orbiter and the orbitee, hello Menominee!

It seems appropriate that I’ll end up getting’ down with the three people I’ve painted over and over for the past 20+ years, and not always in a flattering light. If there’s an After to this Life, I hope they’ll understand. When I get to the bright light at the end of the tunnel, I don’t want any angry ghosts on my hands. Part of my rap-prochement with the past is realizing that the key elements that have “defined” my life are not the deaths, the illnesses, the poverty, the illicit touching, the adolescent pain, the adult relationship pain, the pain the pain the goddamn pain. Flip the foreground and background—like that picture that looks like a death skull one way and a woman brushing her hair the other way [so sexist, but never mind that]—and you see the love, the sacrifice, the generosity, all the quiet invisible parental intangibles that created the offspring of William H. and Louise L. McKenney, and all the lives that have sprung off from each of us (in utero or de facto), and you know that the good far outweighed the bad.

The 7-day painting intensive was amazing, as always, packjam with insights and outtasights, real painters and painted realities, mysteries and surrealities, connections and discords, selfs and others, sisters and a coupla brothers, I’ll never do it justice so let’s just take a look at some highlights and lowdowns.

I was the only one it mattered to, and then I wasn’t there anymore.

This line has stayed with me, because it’s one of the best descriptions I’ve heard of what happens in painting. You spend the day obsessing about this, that, and the other thing—not knowing what to paint, not liking what you painted, what’s going on in the room (“Everyone is into it but me”), what about this relationship or that work problem, what’s for lunch, will this day never end, etc. etc. Brain diarrhea, wontcha put me out of my miserrhea? And then… “you’re not there anymore.” Can you relate, dear reader? You’re not unconscious, you’re fully aware, you just aren’t “there,” Gertrude Stein-wise, in that petty, whiny little ego way with its long self-life and short half-life, it’s only half-living but we think it’s all there is. When we factor in the life after, our petty little head don’t want to be dead. No more ME. All we want is to continue to live (will there be a surge in the basic séances when the Boomers start moving to Ash Land?), but what if release from the body is like cracking through the egoshell and suddenly you’re “gone” but you still be with all the Gods chillin’?

After painting all day, when we’re all aglow, neither here nor there with our souls laid bare, all epiphany, happily happily, do we ever want to go back to the angst and torture of “nothing to paint”? No, we don’t. So why cling to our earthly fling, spend 80 years obsessing about this and that (and the other thing), knowing it matters only to us and then we aren’t there anymore but we’re so much more? What more could we ask for?

One day in the sharing, Pi-te (one of the sweetest men on earth) waxes poetic about the arrangement of flowers in the studio bathroom. He had followed the blooming of the gladiolas throughout the week and describes the buds, the careful unfolding, the luscious colors. The rest of us are thinking, “Geez, I never noticed any of that! All I see in there is the ordinaire, the “12 double rolls same as 24 regular rolls,” not exactly poet matter. Finally, Kate comes up with the answer. “He pees standing up!” The flowers are arranged behind the female behind, and the double (same as twice as many undouble) rolls provide the only distraction besides urinary satisfaction.

We have our laffs, that’s for sure.

As always, some strange things happened during the intensive. It’s like you don’t even know yourself after a few days of painting. The firm grasp you’ve been keeping on your identity starts to crumble, and you realize that your true self has no need to grasp—and there’s nothing to hold on to anyway. At various times I got agitated when I thought I had no reason to, and then was perfectly calm and collected when by rights I “should” have been upset. I got tired of hearing one of the painters harp about judging: “I judged, am judging now, trying not to judge, the judge says this, the judge says that, all is judgment, oops I’m judging again.” It was as if judgment were her identity, her badge or excuse, her comfortable pool of helplessness in which to wallow and never change because there would always be something to judge—it’s an endless loop, the judger is the judged, the observer is the observed (so that’s what Krishnamurti meant!), how would she ever see beyond it? I couldn’t stop myself from saying some of this in the sharing, in a shaky voice, not wanting to attack anyone but needing to say something, and everyone ignored what I said (or, I suppose, had their own things to say, imagine that) so I had to jump in later and say that I felt “hung out to dry” and that I “hated everyone” in the group for not responding. The general consensus was that I had merely been “thrown back on myself,” which is one of those things that sound good in theory but suck when it’s happening to you.

Barbara, of course, points out that I’m doing the same thing that I find so irritating about this other painter (I, too, am judging the judge), and says it’s useful to look at what we see in one another—or, to quote Byron Katie, “Judge your neighbor.” Use the judgment. You can only see in others what already exists in you.

One of the hardest things for me to deal with during a long intensive is not being able to nap at will. I’ve been spoiled rotten by working at home and setting my own schedule. So if I can catch a few winks in my car or on the couch in the sharing room after lunch, it really helps. I was sound asleep one day when a fellow painter, with the very best of intentions (thinking I may not have intended to go to sleep—clearly, she doesn’t know me very well), spoke my name softly and touched me on the shoulder. I CATAPULTED off the couch, yelled JESUS!, and my glasses went crashing to the floor as I rapidly tried to assess what was going on. As I sat there for a moment, head in hands, trying to bring down my heart rate, my FP (fellow painter) apologized profusely, but I was amazed to discover that I bore absolutely no ill will. I didn’t have to force myself to be polite for her sake, or overcome (or indulge) my true reaction. She said, “I made a mistake!” and I said (hardly recognizing myself), “It doesn’t matter! It’s like in the painting!… It’s all right, really, I’m not mad at all.”

This isn’t about my being a “good person,” it’s just something that happened. I never knew that things like that could go right through you, I’ve always held tight to any slight while believing I had no choice but to fight. When I told this story later, someone said we need to “work on” those reactions in our daily lives, and I found myself saying NO. No work! Not about working! It happens! It happens to you or through you when you are being truthful and not banishing the bad feelings. That’s why painting “works.” As Krishnamurti said, “The very fact of being aware of what is is truth. It is truth that liberates, not your striving to be free.” Painting truthfully (though difficult), sharing truthfully in the group (though more difficult), and especially being truthful (and true) to yourself takes you out of the realm of trying (to be a better person), working (on your issues), and processing (personal interactions). Instead, you feel irritated whether it makes sense or not, you feel forgiveness and love whether that makes sense or not, you paint what you paint and judge it or not, and it’s all part of what is, nothing special, no preference. You want to drive the train with your engineer brain, but Life maintains a seamless, trackless terrain. I guess it’s what the Buddhists have always said. Krishnamurti again: “Remembered truth has no value; you have to discover it each time. But each time you discover it, it’s the same.”

Let’s get back to my post-painting therapy session with J for a moment. Having struggled through most of the hour unable to be in the present, consumed with the past I wanted to present to her and even wondering, scarily, if I’d come to the end of therapy, I say, “I feel as if I used to sit in the audience in the dark theater and watch the movie [Life] on the screen. Now I’m in the movie, people can see me from all angles, I can see everything in 3-D too, and I don’t know what role I’m playing or where the story’s going.” No wonder I was having trouble knowing which character, action, or plot line to describe to her, like a movie reviewer in the middle of the show instead of the middle of the row.

I felt more in touch with J (and myself) after that, and it was past time to go, but I still wanted to show her my paintings from the 7-day. She loves to see them, and I don’t feel constrained in my prah-cess by allowing another’s eyes to gaze upon them. So I showed them to her in order and explained how I had gone into the intensive knowing I wanted to paint my sisters and maybe even my whole new-old family. I did paint B and K right away, but it didn’t feel anything like I thought it would. I had assumed that the warm loving connection from real life would flow onto the paper, but instead I stood there, thinking, “Who are these people?” When I paint my parents, they’re recognizable to me as images projected by me. But I couldn’t tell what I was projecting onto my sisters; it was as if I had painted two strangers. Both Barbara and later J thought this “mystery” mirrored my ongoing discovery of K and B as adults. It’s intriguing.

By day 2 or 3, I had started painting bodies from the inside out—first the bones, then fat, then flesh, with the skull staring out from the face. It was so intense that I felt like I was in one of those movies where someone’s trapped in a room and the walls are starting to move toward each other. I illustrated this to Barbara with my left hand in a fist meeting the irresistible force of my open right hand. She said that instead of fighting the intensity, I needed to SPLAT. No clues on how to accomplish that.

Barbara teaches like a Zen master, stopping at nothing to jolt us out of our mental ruts. She asks where more skeletons could be on my painting, and I point out that all the bodies already have them. She inquires innocently, “Oh? Can only bodies have skeletons?” I’m thinking, Yes. There aren’t even any more things to put skeletons in, and again she asks, “Can only things have skeletons?” At that point I give up and paint a “blob skeleton” inside a random shape. And somehow that propels me into painting the molecular structure of the people’s faces. Don’t ask me how.

On the final painting, I don’t start with my sisters, I start with me, and I’m big, with arms stretched wide at shoulder level. Skeleton + fat + flesh, I construct myself on the page with intense blue eyes, open mouth, strong golden lights beaming out of my heart tubes, more golden lights emanating from my midsection, which is intricately organed and celled, molecularly dense, no wispy spirit for me. The image feels so alive that I think it could almost get up and walk off the paper. (That would be a good excuse for taking a break: Can’t paint, my image is out having a cigarette.) I find myself retreating to the sharing room, where I take a deep, fast nap. The intensity is what we all say we want, and then when we get it, it’s almost too much to bear. Finally, I paint my parents on either side of me, pale-fleshily, looking at me dubiously. Who is this person who came out of us?

As I’m showing the paintings to J, she turns to that last one, and she is blown away! “We should have looked at this sooner!” she exclaims. She can’t get over the difference in the way I’ve painted myself. “And you say you’re not in the middle of something??” She mentions the wire sculpture “body” I made years ago: the exoskeleton constructed in wire on a floor lamp doubling as the spine, with a plastic skull, a rubber heart, ribbon- and bead- and flower-spangled innards, and skeleton hands. I had shown her a photograph, and she had marveled that it looked so much like my real body’s somatic posture, downward-sloping shoulders and all. So now she’s gazing in amazement at this painting, contrasting it with the earlier wire soma, pointing out the strong shoulders, solid bones, steady beams of light, intense gaze, so full of life yet self-contained.

What’s especially weird about her referring to the wire sculpture is that it had fallen down recently, and I had reluctantly decided I would have to take it apart. The skull was cracked, the chain and red skeleton hand had fallen off the heart, the yellow fluff that was a “flame” in the chest wouldn’t stay put, and the “neck” (a glob of Sculpey modeling compound to hold the skull on) had dried up and fallen off, so that was that. Nothing lasts forever. I thought it was sad at the time, but after what J said, I realized it was stunningly appropriate that my “old self” would crumble just as the “new self” was asserting itself on and off the paper.

Writing about this is tricky, because in the prah-cess we know not to comment on people’s paintings or to take any of the content to mean anything about us—not to mention the hubris of declaring ourselves to be shedding the old and becoming the new. The paintings are like light traveling for millions of years on a journey to nowhere in particular. By the time light is visible from Earth, the star it came from is dead and gone. So, in our case, what ends up on the paper—which to an “artist” and the “art”-worshiping world is the whole point—is really the detritus, the shed skin of the snake of creativity. The real art is in facing the Void with honesty and vulnerability.

Also, technically, the painting isn’t “finished,” meaning I haven’t gone to the very end and squeezed every last drop and dot out of it that I can. Which makes what happened next even stranger. (BK, avert your eyes!)

J says the painting moves her deeply—I can even see tears welling up (usually that’s my job)—and I’m moved by her response. There is a difference in my body/mind/being, and most of that difference stems from the work we’ve done together. So it feels perfectly natural when she says, If there’s any way I could get a copy of this… to say, I’ll give it to you. She protests at first but finally says simply, “I would be honored.”

I’m “breaking all the rules,” of course—I have never given away a painting before, especially one that isn’t finished. But as Barbara would surely say, There really are no rules except the ones we create, and we learn by testing them.

As so often happens when I start the hour begrudging the “artificial” format of therapy, questioning its usefulness at only 2 hours a month, something unexpected and perfect has happened. I had felt worlds apart from J, and then—SPLAT. I had assumed that the SPLAT, when it came, would be a collision, like a KO in the third round, but instead it’s a beautiful moment, so light, so effortless. At such a moment, I’m in love with life—the surprise and depth of it, the endless mystery, the light traveling toward us as though drawn onward by our grateful eyes.

On the last day of the intensive, Kate has the idea of getting a wedding cake for Terry and Jean, who were ceremonially united in domestic committed partnership (or something like that) in Vermont earlier in the year. Of course it wasn’t a “real marriage,” as it would be if they were a man and a woman who met in a bar in Las Vegas and got hitched the next day by an Elvis impersonator while jumping out of an airplane—oh no, how could their love and 20 years together possibly be “real” compared to the inherently holy union of male + female?? [end rant]

So there was much secrecy and whispering and plotting, and we searched in vain for two little bride figures for the cake. Kate says we can draw the figures instead, so she comes to me in the afternoon and asks if I’ll do it, and I say, “No, I can’t draw!” We look around, trying to think who among us can draw—pretty weird, for a painting group. Kate finally recruits Pi-te, and he does a wonderful job. Kate cuts the figures out like little paper dolls (they’re naked with rosy red nipples, a nice touch) and arranges them on the cake with flowers, and at the end of the day brings the cake out while we sing, “Here come the bridezzz…” and it’s great to watch Jean and Terry looking around in confusion, like “Who…?” It was a wonderful moment, especially because it wasn’t the work of a cultural subgroup honoring their own, it was just friends honoring each other.

heavy petting

Pookie has a new forbidden pleasure, and it’s all my fault. He often comes up beside me when I’m working and makes this little squeaky meow, so I pet his head, murmur some sweet nothings, and go back to what I’m doing. That used to be enough, but then he started presenting himself back end first, and one day when I was feeling especially generous I scratched his back down by his tail, and he got all blissed-out and tried to lick himself on the chest (not sure what that’s about). I frequently comb him with a spiky comb that’s like a bed of nails with a handle, and he likes that too, but there’s something about my stumpy fingernails that really gets him going. And I, being picky about where my stumpy fingernails have been, get all icked-out and have to wash my hands immediately—or at least rub them on my pants. (I’m Ms. Cleanliness-Is-Next-to-Godliness unless I don’t feel like getting up.)

Also… don’t tell the IRS, but… I think my home office is being “repurposed.” Pookie seems to be rallying his forces for a coup, or a koop (pook spelled backwards, huh, huh?). All his stuff used to be out in the hall, but I see it’s now spreading like a virus into my official tax-deductible work territory—his bed, tissue paper, toys, cardboard, catnip heart, ribbons, combs, chair (with towels, for on and under), ad infinitum. I admit I have a hand in this, because he doesn’t have any of his own (hands, that is), but he must be beaming commands into my brain or something (ha! yeah, right). And it’s not as if I have a lot of extra room in here. As I approach my desk, I have to negotiate several noncarpet surfaces: swishy, slippery, crunchy (sounds like the 7 dwarfs), spiky (that bed-of-nails comb is hell on bare feet), and that’s not even counting the litter crumbs, the clumps of fur, the kitty vomitus, and even the occasional turdlet. I ask you! When he starts running around the house frantically, I know there’s something hanging out of his ass that he can’t dispose of in the usual manner.

Well, I could go on and on, right, Pook? But let’s wrap this baby up and put it to bed.

[mutter mutter] get no privacy whatsoever.

jump around! jump around, jump up and get down!

Long Night’s Journey into New Year’s Day

3:00 a.m.: I’ve been listening to party music on Live 105 since 8:00 and don’t want to go to bed and miss any of it. It’s the perfect mix of every upbeat song you ever knew and loved, or didn’t know and get to discover, from the ‘50s to the ‘00s, a whole lifetime of the rock and the roll: James Brown, the Kinks, a dash of disco, Abba, the Clash, Sex Pistols, Oingo Boingo, the Cure, hip-hop, rap rock, electroclash, techno. The oldies are goodies, and the creativity of the new is awesome. Sampling and remix and turntable DJ’in’—it’s recycling that sounds like anything but—the perfect re-use of the musical environment, like a spangly new jacket made out of old tires. They play a techno remix of the Eminem song in which he proclaims, “Nobody listens to techno!” and of course that line is sampled over and over until the joyful irony imprints itself on yer dancin’ jones and yer party bones.

3:30 a.m.: They play an infectious hip-hop number called “Jump Around!” and I can’t help myself, I haul my middle-aged ass out of my chair and get out on the tiny dance floor (again, don’t tell the IRS)—“Jump around! Jump around, jump up and get down!” Pookie, who’s sprawled in the middle of the action, gives me the evil eye—it’s the middle of the night, for Christ’s sake! But I think he secretly enjoys it, and, besides, love it or leave it, eh tu, Pooké?

Next there’s a rap by a guy named Humpty who likes women with big butts. (By the way, when did the ass become so popular?) There’s a dance with this one, too, called the Humpty Hump, but I think I’ll humpty hump my derrière off to bed instead.

Love, Emelem

hi youse guys… ksjf87ffnvks*jlf.. what did she do, oil the wheels on this *@!&k% chair? first of all the pook-coup has already happened.. ive got her doin my biddin. I lift my eyebrow, wait do I even have eyebrows, never thought about it before. I twitch my whiskers and she scratches my back or gets me fresh tissue paper to lie on and thinks its her idea!!! im nuthin if not diabolical—eee-ah-hahaaaa!!!!!! have u noticed ive been practicin on the shift key, I almost have it mastered, just wait til I start typin in ALL CATS {oops, freudy-cat slip, oooh I crack myself up, teehee!}

No doubt! Pookie, butt out!

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #19 December 2001

April 17, 2009

Wartime Edition (rated R for language and brief nudity)

Hello, people. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, it’s the wartime edition of maryzine.

When I was in Berkeley a few weeks ago, I saw posters on telephone poles advertising The Fuck The War Ball. To my lasting regret, I didn’t stop to get the details, but those lovely Anglo-Saxon words have been reverberating in my head ever since.

The times they have a’changed, all right. Back in the day, it was Make Love Not War. Now it’s Fuck the War. Where do we go from here? Nowadays, it wouldn’t be enough for John and Yoko to sit naked in bed to protest the war, they’d have to, well, you know, fuck.

But there are still flag-wavers in Berkeley, so I expect The Fuck The War Ball might get some anti-protest protesters. Perhaps a pro-war group will stage The Fuck The Fuck The War Ball Ball, which will in turn be answered by The Fuck The Fuck The Fuck The War Ball Ball Ball Ball. (Notice, in this flight of fancy, how Fuck and Ball keep getting repeated, and The War stays unchanged. That’s about how much effect The Fuck The War Ball is going to have on real life.)

I actually don’t have much to say about the war Out There. (Après la guerre, moi.) I’m experiencing my own warlike symptoms. In some weird way, I seem to be living out a parallel reality in which the armies of the night are gathering in me. Something inside me is raging, but I don’t know what or who the target is. It’s as if all the pent-up anger from my lifetime stockpile is rumbling just beneath the surface. (They don’t call me Mary Mary Quite Contrary for nothing.) I’m at war, and like The Fuck The War War, it’s an undeclared war against an unknown enemy. Am I projecting onto the world, or is the world projecting onto me? I’m a terrorist of my own self, unpredictable, unappeasable. Mentally I’m crashing into my own building, mailing anthrax letters to my own address. I’m on hyperalert for whatever I’m going to do to myself next. My inner President Bush gives stirring, morale-boosting speeches to a crowd of chanting dissidents, my alter egos. Fuck The Fuck The War The War The Ball The Ball, we echo, overpowering the voice of executive reason.

I cry out for something to be done. Call out the National Guard! Patrol the bridges! Arrest the racially profiled! Scare the citizenry! Pull around the wagons! No, that’s the wrong century!

I wanna be sedated.
—The Ramones

Terrorism and war—both the Inner and the Outer—are wreaking havoc with my personal mental health program. The psychiatrist has upgraded my dosage of anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, anti-obsessive-compulsive-disorder-sneezing-aching-coughing-so-you-can-sleep-better-to-feel-better medicine. It is my hope that 75 mg of Zoloft will soon calm the citizenry of my personal nation state. My economy is ailing, and it’s time to get out there and buy. At least I haven’t laid myself off yet.

(You think I can’t keep this up for 10 pages? Watch me.)

It’s like all this roiling, boiling feeling is rising to the top—“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” The rage may have been triggered by 9/11, but it doesn’t seem to be about that anymore, though terrorism is certainly a handy point-of-reference/excuse/public domain/mass hysteria kind of deal. It’s almost like having permission, somehow, to feel whatever I’m truly, madly, deeply feeling, or as my friend D says, “Then there are the loons like me (and I think there are a lot of us) who are actually relieved because now the outside chaos matches the inside chaos/turmoil/uncertainty/certainty of imminent death!”

Yet despite the War on Terrorism, terrorism itself has become almost passé. The news people are all: Ho hum, another person has died of anthrax, and it’s a complete mystery because she was an elderly shut-in and never got any mail. Now for our main story, Are Americans going to spend a lot of money for Christmas this year?

On the other front in my personal war against self-induced terrorism is my therapist, J. Dr. P. gives me the drugs, but J has to deal with me. She’s always trying to bring me back into my body, and I’m always trying to escape. The classic therapist question is “How do you feel about that?” but J’s question is “Where do you feel it in your body?” My answer is always the same. “I don’t know!”

Therapy doesn’t follow a straight path. Why would it? Painting doesn’t; life doesn’t. It seems to go in waves—just as I’m approaching a central stumbling block-slash-snake pit in my psyche, like, for instance, my deep and scary feelings of Fuck The World (you’re all invited to The Fuck The World Ball)—bam!—something else comes up, some crisis of relationship or work or health that calls for immediate attention, and I have once again escaped facing my personal war-mongering tendencies.

If the Zoloft were still working—or at least working the way it did pre-9/11—I could possibly escape forever. But no such luck. Actually, Jeremy told me that he’s known several people on anti-whatevers who have had the same reaction. I suspect that the medication calms you down and diverts your attention from trivial frustrations, and then Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back in the Water, your inner Godzilla rears its ugly head. (Godzilla, Jaws, whatever.)

By the way, Terry pointed out the synchronicity of the word “God” in Godzilla, which completely escaped my attention in last issue’s riff about the tableau on the back of my washing machine (Godzilla v. Buddha), but you can’t go home again to already-overblown analogies, so never mind.

Anyway, I was at therapy one morning recently, complaining about my constant headaches and other psychosomatic preoccupations, when I told J how angry I’ve been feeling since 9/11. I started crying, which is par for the course, and got up to retrieve the Kleenex from her bookshelf. She just moved our sessions to a new office, so the accoutrements so necessary to the therapeutic process are not yet in place, including an end table for the couch. I brought the Kleenex box back to the couch and “jokingly” said, “I’ll just put it on the TABLE” and dropped the box where the table should have been. Even as the Kleenex box was falling to the floor, I realized how much aggression there was behind my “joke.”

J is nothing if not sharp as a freakin’ TACK, so she immediately said, “Do that again—but organize it.” My somatic task was to exaggerate the gesture, bring the anger out from hiding behind my sarcastic wit. So I picked up the Kleenex box again and tried to throw it to the floor instead of just letting it drop. This was surprisingly difficult to do. I kept working at it—I must have thrown it down 10 times or more—and discovered that I was afraid to “hurt” the Kleenex (or something that the Kleenex represented?—Après la Kleenex, moi?) The box was starting to get torn and crumpled, and the tissues kept threatening to fall out. It was really strange to see how afraid I was to let my anger out, even against an inanimate object. (But then some physicists think subatomic particles are sentient beings. I kid you not.) (2009 update: That’s probably just as ignorant as Sarah Palin complaining about “fruit fly research in Paris, France, I kid you not.” For all I know, sentient subatomic particles are the Drosophila melanogaster of the physics world.)

So then J decided to give me something to abuse that would be a little more sturdy, so she rolled up a throw/blanket/shawl kind of thing that was on the back of the couch and told me to “beat it.” I started to leave—no—I started to bang it on the couch cushion. She wanted me to really get into it and even say words—whatever came to me—as I hit the couch. At first, little pipsqueak “nos” and “fucks” came out. But gradually, I lost some of my self-consciousness and managed to make a few loud noises, NO, NO, NO, as I beat that cushion into submission.

“What did you learn in therapy today?”
“Watch out or I’ll beat you with this SHAWL.”

When J let me stop, I had little time to be relieved, because then she wanted me to use the beating-something-with-every-fiber-of-my-physical-being VOICE to tell her how angry I was. It didn’t even have to make sense, it was just a way to practice coming from this other place. But that was even harder than beating the couch. All my so-called anger, even when I was making it up—“How dare you not bring me coffee this morning?”—came out in this thin, teary whine that I immediately recognized as my natural voice. I just couldn’t get down in my diaphragm and even pretend to be angry. I kept having an irresistible urge to laugh or make a joke—ah, what is that they say about the hostility in humor?—or I’d start crying again. The experience was mortifying—but then, “else what’s a therapy for?”

As I was trying to summon up my angry voice, this great analogy came to me. (When I’m trying to get out of working on somatic patterns and feeling feelings in my body, I like to impress J with my brilliant metaphorical skills.) I told her that I felt like Moses parting the Red Sea. (Inflated much?) I felt as if my attempt to speak with a clear, angry voice was like Moses parting the waters and then having to walk through the dry path with all his people while the temporarily suspended waves on either side threatened to drown them all. (Dry path = my anger; waves = my whiny tears.) I tried to fit J into the analogy, but casting her as the Pharaoh didn’t go over real well, and I realized she wasn’t chasing me anyway, she was on the other side of the sea urging me on. I said I didn’t know what was on the other side of the sea for Moses, and she said “the wilderness, the unknown.” That sounded about right. She also pointed out that Moses never claimed to know what he was doing, he was just obeying God, and that sounded about right, too—at least the not-knowing-what-he-was-doing part.

The reason this exercise was so hard for me was that I have perfected my mother’s art of “expressing” anger through silence and withdrawal, which had the all-important safety feature of putting her out of reach of a counterattack. The other person (usually me) could use the same tactic back at her, but then nothing was ever aired and no one was ever happy. Conversely, my father, a helpless invalid, raged and hollered all the livelong day and it never got him anywhere, because my mother could literally walk away from him. One time when he was bellowing about something or other—she had taken too long to come back from the store, or she had leaned her breasts on the table while playing Scrabble, and Vince, another guy with multiple sclerosis, had been eyeing them—she hauled him into his wheelchair and wheeled him out of the house, down the ramp, and out to our deserted country road where he could sit and rage at the woods to his heart’s content. Naturally, that stopped him cold. My mother never lost a fight.

Lately, I’ve seen what a dead end this tactic of angry withdrawal truly is, but I’ve despaired of learning new tricks at my ripe old age. It was probably a dead end for my mother, too, but at least she had us kids to pass the silent gene on to. I’ve noticed that my sister’s deepest expression of anger is a heartfelt, sarcastically tinged “Huh.” Since my mother was an aspiring writer, you’d think she would be a natural talker, a creative wordsmith of emotion. (But then my father, the Irish talker, never had the urge to read or write.) But I’m reminded of something Adair Lara wrote: “… you have to be pretty good at language to get the full savagery from silence.”

So my assignment for the next few weeks is to beat the bejesus (bemoses?) out of my mattress and holler like a banshee while I’m doing it. It should be easier to do this without an audience, although I’ll probably worry about my neighbor Kim hearing me through the wall. I just can’t seem to admit to myself that it’s the sound and fury itself that scares me.

This is what I dreamed after that therapy session:

I have a PENIS, which is fairly new, and I’m looking at it and thinking it doesn’t look very big. I remember that most guys measure theirs, so I decide to do that. I feel down at the base of it to see where to measure from, but then I remember that you’re supposed to measure it when it’s erect. As I have that thought, I immediately start to get erect, and the penis gets longer and longer and curves up and touches me between my eyes. I’m so impressed.

I also dreamed that I was really angry at a guy wearing bright orange pants, and I yelled at him and pushed him down and started shoving him with my foot.

Pandora’s Box much?

So, getting back to the world Out There, it’s becoming harder and harder to read the newspaper these days. There’s just too much information to absorb—every day, some shocking new report of a world that has forever changed. Take this headline from the S.F. Chronicle of November 11: “People turn to food to ease terror anxiety.” I was floored when I read this. A proven link between food consumption and anxiety? Get out! I scanned the article for more details about this amazing finding.

People across the country have turned to food—from chocolate to mashed potatoes to peanut butter and jelly—to deal with the anxiety of the Sept. 11 attacks and anthrax scares, according to dietitians and psychologists.

“What’s one more chocolate?” asks Almquist, 24. “It seems a little strange to be obsessing about something like that when there’s so much more going on.”

Zumberge, 49, typically would think twice about indulging his sweet coffee craving. “But now? Not so much,” he says.

[Some] say they don’t need the added stress of carefully watching what they eat. “Why do I want to put myself through that right now? There’s enough stuff going on,” said Johnson, 36, a Newport Beach receptionist.

I skip to the end of the article to see if there is some explanation for this stunning new evidence of the mind-body-food connection.

Clinical psychologist Emanuel Maidenberg said Johnson’s feelings are not surprising. “Food of that kind is typically associated with pleasant feelings—comfort, relaxation, calm,” said Maidenberg.

Whoa. Talk about food for thought. I put down my bag of chips—no, actually, I stuff another fistful in my mouth as I consider this possibly life-changing information. Could I possibly be—gasp—using food as a way to deal with my war-induced stress? I review my food choices over the past couple of months. Hmm. A steady diet of hamburgers, enchiladas, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, popcorn, chocolate, Ben & Jerry’s….. I know I have to take a long, hard look at myself to see if my eating habits have been affected by 9/11. Let me think. Nope, nothing’s changed.

This is how I torture myself. One day I bought a Hershey bar and put it in the cupboard, hoping to forget about it so that when I was desperately wanting a treat sometime, and I despaired of finding anything suitable in the house that would be a good substitute for whatever it was I really wanted, I’d suddenly spring up like Einstein discovering relativity and cry “Eureka! I have chocolate!” The problem with that plan is that first you have to forget the chocolate is there. I wouldn’t let myself have it if I couldn’t forget about it, but if I could forget about it, I wouldn’t have come up with such a ridiculous scheme in the first place. I was in a mental prison of my own making, and a bar of chocolate with almonds was my jailer. The more I rattled the bars of my cage, the harder the jailer laughed. “Eat me!” he cried. (I know it was a he, because it had nuts.) (Oh God. Now I’m channeling the teenage boys who used to torture me with this “joke” when I was working at the snack bar in the park.)

To distract myself from the thought of food, I hurry past the terror-anxiety news to the entertainment section of the paper, where I hope to escape into fantasy. But once again I am faced with shocking revelations:

“Shallow Hal” actress found she wasn’t the center of attention in a fat suit.

You’ve got to be kidding me! I can’t take this!

In this movie, Gwyneth Paltrow, beautiful movie star and daughter of a beautiful movie star and a movie producer, plays a 300-pound woman, a role for which she wears a fat suit.

She donned the fat suit and makeup for a day and walked around the lobby of a New York hotel…. At first she was concerned that the crowds in the lobby would figure out who she was right away. To her surprise, no one did. “People wouldn’t even look at me,” Paltrow says with astonishment. “They wouldn’t make eye contact with me at all. It was awful.”

The actress says she experienced a similar reaction whenever she wore the fat suit on the set. “I felt no sexual energy from men,” she says.

After I pick myself up off the floor, I go straight to the cupboard, fall on the Hershey bar, and tear off the wrapper. I think about saving half, but—ah-hahahahahaha. Later that afternoon, I have that moment I had been waiting for—the moment of despairing of finding anything suitable in the house that would be a good substitute for whatever it was I really wanted. But by then, of course, it’s too late.

C’est la guerre.

I’m going to lick this food thing yet. But first, I have more to say.

I do not seek novelty.
—Kay Ryan, poet

I am an enjoyer of repeat experience. Others are drawn to the new; I’m drawn to the been there–done that–enjoyed that–let’s do that again. I generally order the same food in the same restaurants, and I can identify my menu item of choice in just about every restaurant I’ve ever been in. I’m a serial monogamist when it comes to food. In Ann Arbor one summer, when I was 23 and very much alone, I ate a chili dog for lunch every single day. Peggy can attest that I have been searching for a chili dog of that caliber ever since. Maybe it was my need for comfort, not the chili dog itself, that made it such a tasty, satisfying treat—the old mouth-of-the-beholder theory.

Actually a lot of my favorite comfort food comes from Michigan, which is odd in one sense, because my home state is not exactly a culinary paradise. But I guess the whole point of comfort food is to remind you of your childhood. Except, if I wanted to be reminded of my childhood, you’d think I’d be craving pasties (not the little circles that cover a stripper’s nipples but a horrible vegetable pie that the U.P. is known for); creamed salmon and peas on toast (known to my ex-Army dad as shit-on-a-shingle); boiled New England dinner; a dozen varieties of “hot dish” (hamburger or tuna casserole with noodles and canned vegetables); and lime or orange Jell-O with fruit cocktail suspended inside. True, in the summer there was corn on the cob (13 for a quarter, picked that day from the farm next door), potato salad, baked beans, hot dogs—to this day, my favorite food is picnic food—and my mother was an excellent baker. She made the world’s best pie crust—I have yet to taste its equal, and that goes for all the fancy-schmancy crumbles and crisps I’ve had in Bay Area restaurants. Sometimes, all we’d have for supper was strawberry shortcake, if the strawberries were fresh and that’s all anybody (i.e., my mother) wanted. Sometimes we’d have only rice porridge, a Danish rice soup that was basically dessert by any other name—rice cooked in milk, to which we added butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar at the table.

As a kid, I generally refused to play with any gender-appropriate gifts I got—especially dolls—but I did like the little Easy Bake oven I got for Christmas one year. Down in the basement, next to the wringer washer, I would bake little chocolate cupcakes from the tiny boxes of cake mix that came with the oven. I think what I liked was the miniature size of everything—the oven itself, the little pans and pink spatula, the bite-sized cupcakes—and the privacy, the solo adventure in micro-cookery that seemed almost scientific in its precision. Obviously, my mother had an ulterior motive for giving me this gift, because she kept hauling me up from the basement to the grown-up kitchen, where I was supposed to transfer my newfound culinary skills to making pork roasts and boiled potatoes for the family. I never really made the transition—I had my own ideas about what I was going to do with my life. When I got the Junior Betty Crocker cookbook as another gift (I never realized how pointed so many of those gifts were), I was drawn to the recipes primarily as esthetic arrangements. I wanted to make what looked good in the pictures. I was more interested in the art—the red tomato soup offsetting the white and yellow of the egg salad sandwiches—than in throwing together whatever leftovers were in the fridge.

I also tried out some of my irrepressible religious humor when I made this supper:
“It’s like we’re eating the body and blood of Jesus.”
“I say, it’s like we’re eating the body and blood of Jesus.”
“That’s enough,” says Mom.

I thought of my Easy Bake oven experiences when I read about a panel of professional chefs who competed in the Easy Bake Oven Bake-Off. They had to use all the creativity and skills at their disposal to bake their dessert specialties in the tiny toy oven, which is nothing but an aluminum box powered by a 100-watt light bulb. The winning entries were a huckleberry tart topped with goat cheese ice cream and a chocolate flourless cake. The most surprising thing I read in the article was that the Easy Bake oven “was introduced to the market in 1963.” I figured it must be a typo, because that made me a junior in high school when I was playing cupcake chef down in the basement. And why was my mother giving me such a thing at that age anyway? Well, that’s more understandable. For my 21st birthday, she gave me Pat Boone’s book of advice for teens called ‘Twixt Twelve and Twenty. I guess she couldn’t do the math.

I was going to say that this ‘50s nostalgia thing is really getting out of hand, but I guess instead it’s this early ‘60s nostalgia thing that’s getting out of hand. However, I’m pretty sure paint-by-number was around when I was an actual child. Believe it or not, even that is becoming trendy, in an all-things-kitschy-are-in-again kind of way. Some guy has a huge collection of these paintings and is trying to make sociological/historical/cultural/financial hay out of this supreme example of noncreativity. In the article I read, he was quoted as saying, “Some people actually painted these paintings to hang on their walls,” and I thought, “Yeah, you got my family pegged.” Well, my mother never did that, but my aunt put up the paintings that my cousins did. I am so torn right now between being sarcastic about the condescension of trend-spotters who exploit unsophisticated people for financial gain and getting all condescending myself about the unworldly pleasures of the people to whom I was born. Or maybe I’m not really theirs, maybe they found me in a basket in the bulrushes. (I am inflated much.)

But when it’s all you can do to survive and raise a family and you aren’t exposed to art (except Norman Rockwell—who’s also making a comeback, by the way) or music (except Lawrence Welk, ‘nuff said) or books (except possibly Reader’s Digest condensed books), you really don’t know any better. And that is the eternal shame in being working class (a.k.a. white trash) in this country. You don’t have the right clothes, the right accent, or the right knowledge about the right things, because you never had the financial means to buy yourself 4 years of leisure (a.k.a. college) to become more discerning. If you’re lucky, your kids manage to elevate themselves enough to get an education and come back to make fun of you for your primitive preferences. I could go on and on about class and about what it’s like to have come from that background and then try to fit in with people who assume you had the same privileged background they did, and maybe someday I will.

But for now, I think I’ll call it a day. It’s a day. No comments from you-know-who (starts with “P” and ends with “e”). Our latest noteworthy encounter was when I gave him a “bath” with a waterless shampoo that smells (a.k.a. reeks) of tea tree oil, with which I had had no prior experience. It was frustrating not to be able to explain to him how lucky he was, that it was this or get hauled down to the professional cat shampooers for the full treatment. (They should have a cat wash, like a car wash; just strap ‘em in and run ‘em through.) Afterward, I felt sorry for him, because he kept trying to get away from the smell by getting up off the floor and hunkering down on straight-backed chairs for a few moments before moving on. I knew just how he felt. It’s hell not to be able to get away from yourself when you want to. I’ll have more to say about that next time, I hope—after beating my mattress with a towel every day and yelling FUCK YOU to the universe (The Fuck The Universe Ball, why not), possibly getting myself some bright orange pants in which to haul around my gigantic new PENIS—oh, and I suppose BALLS go along with that. And so we come full circle.

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