Posts Tagged ‘travel’

mary’zine #72: February 2015

February 23, 2015


best way to begin an autobiography

I was born, obviously. —Alyssa C.


January 2, 2015, 3:33 a.m.

I like to think that the “new year” really doesn’t affect me. It’s arbitrary, after all: dividing up time as if it were loaves and fishes. I don’t like rituals or ceremonies, either; maybe I don’t like symbolism, which seems weak and helplessly hopeful in comparison to what is. (Krishnamurti: “Hope is a terrible thing.”) Hope, resolution, affirmation are all about “the future,” as if the next arbitrary span of time may contain and reveal something that does not exist in the present moment.

And yet… sitting at my desk in the middle of the night, after spending several hours editing a paper on the inactivation of HIV in certain cells by certain proteins, I feel strangely satisfied. It doesn’t feel like a “new day” or year, exactly, but like I’m where I’m supposed to be, as if there really is a plan, a “supposed to be.” I love being awake at this hour of the night. Brutus and Luther are raising hell in the background, diving onto tissue paper left over from Christmas as if it were a pile of leaves, batting around the balls that “Aunt Terry” gave them when she was visiting. I just drank a Frappuccino, fattening liquid of choice, though I should be trying to sleep so I can talk somewhat coherently to P on the phone in the morning.

My house is full of color—from my paintings and a couple of my friends’ paintings that I somehow bamboozled them out of, and from all the many gifts my niece, sisters, and friends have given me. I am running out of both wall space and surfaces on which to display them. In my “office,” which is just an arbitrary space carved out of my large upstairs loft-like room, I have a dollhouse exactly like the one I had as a kid—maybe even the same one, for all I know. My sisters found it at a garage sale and bought it for me. Because of my fascination with bucking trends and defying the conventional, I don’t fill it with miniature furniture. When I realized I could indeed use it for anything, it was as freeing as when I first discovered that I can paint anything, or I could buy a red phone, back in the olden day of those bulky, plugged-in, dial-dinosaurs. I must have a strong streak of conventionalism after all—I fight it so much while stubbornly holding on to the idea that I have to do what I should do, when it really doesn’t matter. My mother was practical down to her bones, to the point where decoration seemed frivolous and we kids bringing her flowers from the woods across the road were “bringing dirt and bugs into the house.” She had very strict ideas about what was acceptable and what wasn’t. I’ve written before about how she told me I was wrong when I wrapped a present for my aunt Doris by positioning a large flower—part of the pattern on the wrapping paper—in the center of the package: early artistic leanings not to be fulfilled for many years. For Christmas and birthdays she bought me lots of boxed craft kits, for sand painting or jewelry making, paint-by-number sets and coloring books, but I don’t think it ever occurred to her to encourage me to let loose with paper and pens or paint: Creativity was marketed, not really used to create.

I’ve always struggled against the constraints I possibly inherited or at least was conditioned to, so my life has been a series of amazing and mundane discoveries, such as, Why can’t I have a red phone?? It’s the same process I experience in painting. The battle is never really won, between wanting to do the “right” thing and eventually discovering again that true satisfaction is in the freedom of making it up as I go. I love painting fictitious animals and exaggerated, unrealistic human figures with tubes pumping rays of light and color outside the body, and internal organs and contorted limbs not known to science or medicine. The juxtaposition of my creative self (my true self, I like to think) and my expertise in logic and language seems like it should be contradictory, but somehow it isn’t. I can have both, I can be both, and more.

Among many other Christmas gifts this year, my sister Barb gave me some Yooper memorabilia: a full-size license plate (“YOOPER—You betcha!”), a key ring in the shape of MI, with the U.P. designated “Michigan’s better half” (might be some overcompensation going on there) and magnets: “It’s a YOOPER thing… EH!,” “Michigan YOOPER Great Lakes Splendor,” and “Yooper Girl.” Sure, this kind of thing is pretty hokey, and commercial to its core, but she also found, in Schloegels’ gift shop, a small elephant made out of recycled aluminum… from Kenya! UP here we are not completely out of the loop, or the Yoop. On the dollhouse I have an old bendy girl from a McDonald’s Happy Meal and a twisted series of plastic snap-on pieces coming out of the chimney. The other day, when I was trying to make a dent in the picking up and putting away of both the detritus and the gifts of Christmastime, I noticed some red yarn on a decorated gift bag, so I impulsively tied the big Yooper license plate to the chimney on the back side of the dollhouse. Noticing it tonight was part of what made me feel satisfied with this never-to-be-imagined reentry into my home life / homeland past that I am making into my own image.

I have also discovered several warm, intelligent, creative women here whom I have been gradually meeting in person after finding them on Facebook. Facebook (!): the medium intended for young people to hook up with each other and then text back and forth when they’re in the same room, but which has become, instead, a meeting ground and philosophical forum for us oldsters to ruminate, Laugh Out Loud, and reconnect with old friends. We boomers have taken over everything. This happened a few years ago with the Honda Element, a vehicle I still want, though I understand it isn’t being made anymore. All the profit-mongers are trying to appeal to the 18-35 age group and here we are, in our 50s, 60s, and beyond acting as if we still matter, we still have preferences and a little bit of discretionary retirement income and, in all the ways that count, are as young at heart as we were back in our formative years running from tear gas and cops at antiwar demonstrations. It was a great time to be young, the ‘60s, I tell you what (unless you were a draftee or a Republican).


I don’t know why that reminds me, but I have no outline or grand plan, so here goes:

fd8ea8f60f66a2e88aa74e9dddb216fd  I am addicted to Pinterest, which, long story, but I came across some images of the little drawings that medieval scribes added to the margins of manuscripts they were supposedly copying verbatim (while also adding their own stories and interpretations of myths or long-past real or imagined events, which, Holy Bible). So I was “pinning” some of them onto my Art & Illustration board, and I found one that showed a man (?) on stilts holding (breastfeeding?) a baby and carrying a vessel of some sort on his head… along with a young woman and a bird down on the groundIMG_0966 doing I don’t know what. It’s a striking image, because the very idea of walking on stilts, let alone carrying a baby while doing so, is anathema to me. I posted the image on my grown godchild’s Facebook page, because she and her husband are “stilt-walkers” and can be seen far and wide doing their thing in parades, festivals, and (by the way) at their own wedding. I figured they’d like this ancient example of their art, but I was surprised when Kelly sent me a photo of her breastfeeding their darling, godly god-like child while on stilts. It was a wonderful case of synchronicity, and both my godchild and godson-in-law were amazed at seeing the medieval image. Someday I suppose Larkin will be accompanying them on their stilt-walking travels, hence keeping the hippie spirit alive for two generations past the time that we boomers mostly gave up on it.


A few days ago, I started writing this ‘zine with the predictable travel story about flying out to San Francisco for a painting intensive. But it felt canned, like I was just describing events and thoughts and encounters by rote. I have a lot to say about the trip, and about the painting itself, but I need it to come out naturally, or not at all. So that’s a peek into my process, in case you wanted to know.

Sometimes I think that Life is not New at all, but is mostly a rediscovery of things we’ve always known but have to keep relearning—as if we constitutionally consist of the New but go through this bodily process called Life in order to experience the New being remade from scratch, over and over again. Blissful stillness seems to be our natural state—how can Oneness be anything but Still?—because in truth that is all there Is, no differentiation, no duality. But our difficult, subjective, isolative charade of Life seems to be a reward for all that Oneness & Beingness, not a punishment as we sometimes think. There are things we can only experience in apparent separateness, such as the exquisite coming together in unlikely communion, and I’m not talking about religion here, or even “spirituality.” Just Truth, in its elusive but eternally yearned for and occasionally seen wonderment, blazing like ten thousand suns. One of my favorite fantasies is that “all will be revealed” after we die—like there will be an intimate workshop with a kindly old teacher in a seminar room with a voice that might call itself God, but not like “God” as we imperfectly imagine It. But it’s unlikely that this will happen, because we will, by definition, be returning / dissolving into the Oneness, and it is merely a childish desire to stand outside Time and Space and maintain both our precious individuality and our blissful surrender to “the time before we were born.” Without duality, you can’t really have it both ways, know what I mean?

I’ve been at this for almost 2 hours now, time for a break. You may talk amongst yourselves until Yooper Girl returns.


my all-time favorite explanation for what’s happening in the world; from 1992!—but it applies now more than ever

[From We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse, by James Hillman and Michael Ventura (HarperCollins, 1992)]

“Ventura: … My feeling is that this worldwide disintegration is going to play itself out no matter what, and it’s going to take a while, a century or two—a century or two of a kind of chaos, possibly a corporate nightmare, I don’t know, but call it a Dark Age. We had a technologically primitive Dark Age, now we’re going to have a technologically extraordinary Dark Age. But you remember what philosopher Miguel de Unamuno said: ‘We die of cold and not of darkness.’

“Just around when he was turning thirteen my kid came home one night, after dark, sat on the couch, and in a kind of fury suddenly burst out with, ‘It’s fucked, it’s so fucked, man, the whole thing is fucking fucked. What do you do in this world, man?’ What could I say to him, that things are gonna be all right, when they’re not? That it’ll be okay when he grows up and gets a job, when it won’t? I got a little crazy and impassioned and I said something like this:

“That we are living in a Dark Age. And we are not going to see the end of it, nor are our children, nor probably our children’s children. And our job, every single one of us, is to cherish whatever in the human heritage we love and to feed it and keep it going and pass it on, because this Dark Age isn’t going to go on forever, and when it stops those people are gonna need the pieces that we pass on. They’re not going to be able to build a new world without us passing on whatever we can—ideas, art, knowledge, skills, or just plain old fragile love, how we treat people, how we help people: that’s something to be passed on.

“And all of this passing things on, in all its forms, may not cure the world now—curing the world now may not be a human possibility—but it keeps the great things alive. And we have to do this because as Laing said, who are we to decide that it is hopeless? And I said to my son, if you wanted to volunteer for fascinating, dangerous, necessary work, this would be a great job to volunteer for—trying to be a wide-awake human during a Dark Age and keeping alive what you think is beautiful and important.”


The first thing I thought of when I read this was, of course, the painting I’ve been doing for 35 years. We are a small band of people who explore the self (for lack of a better word) through a process that uses our consciousness—that which Krishnamurti said is the same for everyone, not similar—to explore what the mind, useful as it is, cannot touch. It feels a little like going down to the bottom of the ocean and painting what you “see,” with no need for oxygen or protective devices. This is an ocean without a name, and it is completely worthy of our trust, despite the fears we have all been conditioned to. Indeed, it is the very apotheosis of the Unknown, which governs us each deep down. It can be frightening to face the Unknown, even in such a seemingly superficial way as applying paint to paper. But what results is wisdom, compassion, empathy, humility, humanity.

In a happy marriage of technology and this process that is so much more than an art form, I finally agreed to Barbara’s suggestion that I join a web conferencing site called Zoom so that I can paint at home while being in audio and visual connection with classes going on in San Francisco ( It’s a different experience than painting at the studio, because there is more human contact there, obviously, complete with conversations and hugs, but it makes it possible for me to paint more than once or twice a year. (I don’t have the self-discipline to paint completely on my own.) So here is a case where technology aids the passing on of what we love. It has given me a new lease on painting, without the expense and torture of travel. And just today I painted something I’ve never painted (or even thought of) before: eyeball bullets. Happy will be the future people who discover that.


I’ve been thinking about how childhood exists on two levels: the outer and the inner. If I tell the story of my childhood, what comes to mind are the events that happened around me or were visited upon me, the story. Of course, I had reactions to those events, and lots of thoughts, tears and fears around most of them. But what still has power for me now are a few things that were deeply personal and meaningful, not involving family, school, or indeed anyone else.

There was a time when I was very close to nature… not the thought of it or the appreciation of it as an idea, but the essence. One of the advantages of nature was that it got me out of the house. I could be alone and travel without fear through woods, picking a spot in the cedar grove way behind us on what used to be my grandfather’s land, and reading or just sitting, watching the birds and smelling the fragrances all around me.  My favorite thing to do was find and pick flowers, especially buttercups (also called cowslips, I think). I also liked violets and the rarely seen jack-in-the-pulpit, but there was something almost mystical about buttercups. I crave them even now—the frisson I would get from just touching them again, seeking them out in a semi-swampy part of the woods. They are still out there, I hear, but not where I used to find them. “My” woods are gone, or the property has become privately owned and not to be trespassed upon. And yet I have not driven out on those county roads where local people say buttercups have been sighted for a brief time in the spring. Maybe the actual flowers are not as important anymore, but something in me considers them one of the hallmarks of my young life.

The other thing I think about a lot are the little books I used to make that I would fill with images cut out of magazines and seed catalogs. Those flowers—extravagantly lush pansies and roses—pasted into arrangements with people and furniture before I knew the word collage—were equally precious to me, for all their unreality. I would be tempted to sell my soul for just one look at those books again, though I might be disappointed. I would be expecting some mystical (that word again) intelligence, some disconnect and reconnect with a creative world unlike the world of craft, like when you find your teenage diary and think you’ll encounter wisdom you didn’t know you had, and then it turns out to be mundane and predictable. I didn’t keep a diary then, anyway, because I had to hide my inner self from my intrusive mother. She wouldn’t have valued the collage books, and clearly didn’t value the real flowers, so those were two things that were solely my own: art as privacy, as distance, as a marker of my true self. Naturally, she threw out the books, like she did everything else from my childhood except, inexplicably, a crayon drawing for which I won a blue ribbon in kindergarten. She did value competition and achievement. The drawing wasn’t a great example of creativity, it was quite rational and cold-blooded, in fact. It was a barnyard scene with the requisite chickens, barn, and a farmer with a pitchfork that was touching the ground although his feet were not. There was a fence that I reasoned would hide the horse I drew behind it, so you could only see the top half of the horse—but the fence was just posts and a few horizontal pieces of wood, not solid at all! At the age of four or five, I hadn’t yet developed the great logic skills with which I have made a career.

So every now and then I think about those collage books and I know that I could make them again, though they would be very different, of course. I haven’t done it. It’s the memory I want to keep close, not necessarily the actual craft or art. I do something that is similar in some respects but doesn’t involve paste or access to magazines (I subscribe to only one, the New Yorker, which isn’t big on colorful images). I mentioned above that I am quite addicted to Pinterest, which for the longest time I couldn’t imagine the point of. You create “boards” online, that you name and then fill with images from the Internet, many of them from followers or those you follow. It’s not the same as creating art, but there is a particular pleasure in gathering these images. My boards are not highly organized or comprehensive—which is fine because it doesn’t matter. I now know that there are an infinite number of art pieces in the world, from doodles and illustrations to abstract paintings, sculpture, and blown glass. I’m not much interested in realism, which would not come as a surprise to you if you’ve seen my paintings. I can almost breathe the rightness and richness of works by Joan Miró or Franz Kline, but my Art & Illustration board makes no distinction between great art and the simpler shapes and colors found in magazines. I enjoy color and form and value them more highly than words, ironically, considering I’m an editor.


I think my sister Barb deserves a blue ribbon for her response to my Facebook entry, “I used to think I was a prodigy, but now I think I’m a late bloomer.” Her response: “Does that make you a Baby Bloomer?” (W)it runs in the family, I guess.


San Francisco > home

2 Sertraline, 2 Excedrin, 1 Tagamet, 2 Dramamine, 2 Advil, 1 lorazepam. That’s what it took to get me home from the painting intensive in San Francisco in early December 2014. Each pill had a specific job to do. I am not one to turn my nose up at a pill. Lorazepam, in particular, is a life-changer. The side of my right foot had been throbbing for hours; I thought it was just from wearing shoes all week, but it was actually the dreaded restless legs syndrome, which, I wish they would think of a more impressive name for it because it is neurologically ruthless! Just this side of unbearable.

I had gotten up at 2 a.m., after about an hour and a half of sleep, so Terry and I could return our rental car to Alamo at SFO and get through all the check-in and security business in time for my 6 a.m. flight. I was exhausted and slept for almost 3 hours of the 4-hour flight, a mitzvah of the highest order. I’m pretty sure my mouth was hanging open the whole time, and I remember saying something out loud that I mercifully did not remember once I woke up. I had already known for a few days that there would be no blizzard in Chicago, which, once again, mitzvah.

This next observation is quintessentially “white” of me, but I am quintessentially white, with Northern blood flowing through all my ancestors and into my own veins, along with a Northern temperament, though I couldn’t tell you exactly what that is.

My seatmate in first class was a black man, professional-looking, somewhat younger than me. That’s right, I said black man right up front instead of holding this information back and later referring casually to his mocha-colored skin. I’ve read stories in which the white author used this gimmick (as I think of it) in order to appear to be color blind. I’m not color blind, I can see just fine, but I had no issue sitting next to this man, nor did I feel the need to be obsequious in the way of white liberals wanting approval for their open-mindedness. I have limited direct experience with black people. (If we say “African American,” we should call white people “European American,” but that isn’t going to happen. The majority is the default and gets to be called “people” or “men” whereas, say, women writers or black scholars are considered outliers, a social subspecies.) But I read, and from what I have read by black people about their daily experiences with clueless whites, I try not to repeat the same mistakes, mostly by keeping in mind the late poet Pat Parker’s admonition to “forget that I’m black; never forget that I’m black.” It is indeed possible to keep both things in mind. It’s a matter of respect.

I don’t know why I like to start my travel sagas at the end and then go back in time. It might have something to do with my mother’s habit of reading the newspaper from back to front. That’s how I read The New Yorker now. It’s comforting somehow. It’s like hiding something from yourself and then being delighted when you come across it.

The day’s roster of pills gave me a strange mix of feelings by the time we landed in Green Bay. I had to wait around for a United employee to find my suitcase—clearly marked by a big orange PRIORITY tag. Do words not mean anything anymore? I had been planning to have lunch at El Sarape but was too tired to go out of my way and then attempt to drive after a heavy meal. I could hardly stay awake as it was, and it was a great relief to arrive home unscathed. After a brief flurry of interest from the cats, I once again slept, but it took me several days to feel rested again.



As always, I had dreaded the trip and all the various unknowns I would be faced with. But Terry didn’t want to go without me, and Barbara was quite insistent that I was needed there and needed to be there. And it was true. I had an amazing week, which I think I always say. But it’s always true, which is the real motivation to return.

It may have been day 2, maybe even day 1, when I shared in the group that “my molester” had contacted me a few days before and wanted me to do some minor favor for him. It had been 25 years since our last contact, and that only by phone, and 55 or more years since the events. A close friend I told about this urged me to “let it go”—it had happened a long time ago, and he surely didn’t know he had done anything wrong, had probably (a) forgotten all about it or (b) thought it was consensual. So, in the group, I was wondering if I was supposed to “let it go,” and if so, how, and I also acknowledged that I had “dined out” (as they say) on the story, as if it were a badge of honor, courage, or at least victimhood to have this in my past. And it wasn’t just the molestation. His driving me to school on the first day of eighth grade was, I believe, what triggered my year-long phobia about throwing up in class. I was anxious about possibly being late, for one thing, and resentful that my mother could not have cared less about such common teenage anxiety; after all, she’s the mother who turned around on a divided highway and went against oncoming traffic because she “had to get back” to a missed exit.

Part of what confused me about X, “my molester,” was that he had called his parents’ house the morning after my mother died, specifically to offer his condolences to me. I was in shock, half because of my mother’s death and half just hearing his voice (his mother, my aunt, had invited me next door for lunch). His older brother R was in the other room talking to my uncle about everyday things (one thing he contributed at lunch was his belief that a prostate exam was “proven” to be as painful as childbirth) and didn’t once speak to me about my mother. X and I had a perfectly pleasant conversation, in the way of girls or women speaking to boys or men who have done them harm: Somehow there’s a code, of fear or of inappropriateness, in accordance to which we don’t confront them, we keep it all inside, blame ourselves instead of them, and so on. But I was struck by X’s apparent sympathy and lack of self-consciousness as if, indeed, he felt there was nothing between us that warranted being nervous, or maybe even that he felt a bond with me because of those events in the cedar grove and in our basement that were humiliating for me but clearly pleasurable for him.

So I could see the wisdom of my friend’s saying I should let that past go, and I didn’t know if I was resisting that because it had become an integral part of my victim identity. Fortunately, in painting, there’s really no such thing as past or present, and the future, if it exists, is completely open. So I painted him and me, staying with the core feelings, and I did feel somewhat better just letting it be rather than trying to force a letting go. But Barbara came along and pointed out that I hadn’t painted any part of him touching me, which I’m sure was deliberate, though not conscious. So I extended the reach of his painted self, barely crossing the boundary of my painted body with black tendrils. Barbara urged me again and again to go as far as I could. I had to paint him getting into me somehow (lines going into my eyes and mouth), and even then she had to urge me (without saying in so many words) to see the part I was still avoiding, which was our lower halves. So I ended up with a painting I hated to look at, and I still don’t know the extent to which I have “let it go” or touched something deep inside that I had never allowed myself to feel.


It seems rather ironic that I had such pleasant encounters with men on this trip. It started on the smallish plane I take from Green Bay to Chicago. I was struggling to wedge myself into the single seat on one side, and the man across from me had two larger seats to himself. He generously offered to switch places with me, and then we kept up a conversation until we got in the air. Turns out he’s a pilot for Delta (we were flying United), and he told me several stories about awful flights he had flown. He was very solicitous about my comfort, I think partly because of the cane I take with me so I can make it through the airports more easily. (A cane is an obvious sign that something isn’t right.) I told him I was going to S.F. to paint, and described the process very generally. He said his 16-year-old daughter is creative, a writer. He said she’s very protective of her writing and her privacy. She’s careful about whom she shows it to, and only when she feels ready. I said, “Vulnerable. Being creative is on a par with being vulnerable.” He seemed dubious. I hope he remembers that, though. I felt a kinship with his daughter, and with him for caring about her. When we landed in Chicago, I said good-bye and we shook hands. He was surprised that, “unlike most women,” I have a strong grip. I like to think I shook up his world a little bit. I’m far from outgoing, but when I have a chance to make an intimate connection with someone, even briefly, I relish it. That’s how people change, I think (me and them).

All week (not just in the airports) I had a good feeling about various men I encountered. It’s a new world for me. In Chicago, my gate happened to be near Wolfgang Puck’s, which I love, so I hobbled over there and got myself a margarita pizza. As I looked around for somewhere to sit, two Indian men got up and effusively offered me a seat at their table, and I settled in to eat my lunch. More than one man helped by parting the crowds for me or letting me get in line. One guy responded to my thanks with “Absolutely! No problem!” Women were kind to me too, of course. I couldn’t help noticing that the women who helped me were not with men. And the men were not with women. Not sure what to make of that.

I think that will be all for now. There’s an omelet downstairs with my name on it, or will be once I break a few eggs. I hear you have to do that.






mary’zine #65: February 2014

February 5, 2014

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

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

adventure time

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

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

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

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

close encounters with the martinets of the airways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


… the delight, when your courage kindled,

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

img001 copy 6

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



the body abides

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


img001 copy 10


img001 copy 7

lez iz more

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

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




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

ooh la la!


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

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

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

For a New Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


mary’zine #62: June 2013

June 8, 2013


The Difference (King’s X)

 I walked through a garden
In the morning
I walked right into
A change

No words were spoken
Just a feeling
And I cannot explain
But I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference

Wind it comes and
It blows
Where it comes from
I don’t know

To look for a reason
Might just kill it
And I cannot explain
But I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference

I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference

And I cannot explain


7 days

Terry read us the above song lyric during the last sharing of the May painting intensive at the CCE Painting Studio in San Francisco. It fit my experience of the week perfectly. And now I face the challenge of using language to somehow “explain,” describe, or at least evoke it in some way.

As usual, I have lots of little things to share about my trip, some on the ground, some in the air, but one major theme has come up that doesn’t seem suited to intertwining with details about restaurants, traffic, and funny conversations. I’m not sure what to do about that. If I promise to put all that stuff at the end and call it The Lighter Side, can you stay with me here as I no doubt poorly “explain” the big thing that happened? OK, here goes.

Writing this the day after I got home, my mind is buzzing and my body is buzzing, but I don’t think they’re buzzing in the same direction. Or level. Or something. The mind is all earnest and heartfelt and wanting to share the strangeness and plumb the apparent disconnect between physicality and consciousness. Its agenda is to understand and thereby control the strange goings-on. But the body is all about the inarticulate but strongly felt sensations where old and new experiences and perceptions are stored. Far from languishing, it exerts its own control from down in the briny deep.

In the last issue of the mary’zine, I wrote about a body part that I loathe. But I have encountered new life, new blood in a region of my body that has been felt but unplumbed for a very long time. It is, for lack of a better term, the “lower region.” I would call it visceral, the “pit of my stomach,” but anatomically I don’t even think the stomach is that far down. I will just call it the “lower region”: the lower belly, just shy of the genital area but surely connected to it by plumbing (!) and magic.

So Barbara was talking about this “lower region” and about how much feeling and power is stored there. She was sitting cross-legged on the couch, and she gestured to the area on her own body, but I wasn’t sure what the perimeters were. I made her stand up and show me. I was really excited to know that something important goes on in that area, because I’ve had sensations there (rare but strong) since a young age. I couldn’t put a name to them, but I eventually came up with the words lovepityhome…. The love and pity seemed to be for my mother. I remember when I was about 12 years old she had bought me a pair of slacks for Easter. When I went into my bedroom to try them on, I had this intense sensation (quick, where’s my thesaurus?)—a short-lived piercing ache, an abyss of love closely linked to pain into which I could toss any number of words: regret? fear? guilt? the bleakness and joy of existence in this world? I wanted to escape my situation (home), but I felt inexorably tied to it, to my family whom I knew I would leave behind literally and in so many other ways. I knew my mother loved me. But her attempts to please me made me feel almost worse than her insensitivity to my feelings at other times. Her life was hard, with an invalid husband to care for and a family of five to support. She did her best, and maybe that’s why I felt that “strange brew” in my body. (The band Cream’s song “Strange Brew”—“kill what’s inside of you.”)

(I’m throwing a bunch of words on this, like sprinkling salt on a casserole. I hope it makes sense, on some level.)

I’ve had this sensation many times over the years, and I welcome it, I’m not sure why. It comes on its own, I can’t make it happen. And now that I know it’s an important part of the body’s feeling apparatus, uncontrolled by the mind—that ultimate emperor with no clothes—I want to become more aware of it and express it or follow it, or whatever will give it the freedom to flower.

I can’t believe that it took me more than a week to connect sex to this area. For almost the whole intensive, I was having strong sexual feelings, and by the last day it was clear that those feelings were being prompted by my new attention to this complicated area of my body. (“This old gray Mare still has some gas in her tank!”, I thought, or maybe that was Minnie Pearl.) I’m still not sure how sex enters into the love/pity/home theme, but I suppose it makes sense that the most difficult feelings, the ones most laden with significance and physicality, would all be related somehow.


During the week I had the usual feelings of disconnect between painting and life. As in the song lyrics I quoted at the beginning, painting made a huge difference but it wasn’t possible to trace the connecting lines, connect the dots, explain a damn thing. On the painting I started after the talk about the “lower region,” I painted myself standing knee-deep in a body of water, and all my attention was on what was below the water—as if my own body were a mere afterthought. Barbara and I saw this at the same time, and it was very telling. I had to focus on my body, which was difficult because I couldn’t paint my feelings literally: A black or muddied band around the lower region wasn’t going to be enough. So I just painted, and I have no idea what happened. The painting isn’t finished, but I scanned a couple parts of it to show you.

img001 copy 3      img002

Looking at these images now, I’m struck by two things: The “lower region” I’m talking about has an eye in it. This makes me wonder if that part of the body, an apparent storehouse of denied emotion, is more wise and sensitive than we can imagine. And the larger eyes, especially as seen in the second image, project intense power. As I was painting, I had no idea that they meant anything, and they weren’t even in the “area” I wanted to concentrate on. But looking at them now, it seems obvious.

The sexual resurgence I started to feel during the painting week has continued. Have I unleashed something—my own Pandora’s box*—only to be stymied in the face of consequences? (*According to that bastion of scholarly research, Wikipedia, the “box” was really a jar; [“I left Pandora’s box ajar”?] The mistranslation was blamed on Erasmus of Rotterdam. But I digress. No, wait, I’m not finished. Zeus gave Pandora the jar, with instructions not to open it under any circumstances. Remind you of anything? Hint: apple, snake? What is it with mythological male figures enticing women to do “evil” (assuming evil = mere curiosity) and thus bring down the wrath of the very same gods (or God). By the way, Zeus didn’t punish Pandora for disobeying him—“because he knew this would happen.” It was a set-up from the beginning!)

Since the first insight about the “lower region” struck me, I’ve been discovering layers upon layers of repercussions. One of the major ones is not just sex but Desire. Desire seeks an object. Pandora’s container is easily unhinged when Desire is on the lam. Is Pandora’s jar commensurate with desire? or merely with fantasy? Does fantasy lead to recklessness…cracking the foundation of truth by placing unearned weight on it? or balancing rickety ladders on chair rails to reach a higher understanding? Can fantasy be a means to the truth? One of my dalliances, years ago, resulted in my seeing beyond the illusion of lust to the truth that both of us were in it for ourselves. There was a lot of hot body action but no true communion of souls. Just two female animals trysting under the stars (or in my office after hours, but if this were a poem I wouldn’t mention that). But talk about being alone when you’re with someone. Selfishness (whether the driver or the result of fantasy) is isolating.

So when I got home after the intensive, I found—or imagined—an object of desire in the form of an old friend who had once been attracted to me. It surprised me indeed to open that door and find her there… as if she had been sitting on the other side, waiting patiently. It was astonishing to think that this could be real. But would my desire for her be a welcome gift? Or would it be seen as a mixed message, a mixed gift, a once-nixed gift, a gift too old to be of value?

Desire: a hard pounding in my heart, a hurt before it ever finds its happiness, and also after.

I held Desire in until I couldn’t hold it anymore: the hot potato of love. I threw it to her—made my proposition. I wanted to make a deal. I’d pick door #1, the least threatening, the least life-altering, the maximum good with the minimum cost or hazard. Sex is infinitely malleable, is it not? Couldn’t we define it, indulge in it, as narrowly or as broadly as we chose? We had a long-lasting friendship, had been through a lot together. And there are no rules for being gay (one of the best parts, frankly). Straight people have several well-worn paths laid out for them, whereas we are always, of necessity, blazing our own trails.

Unfortunately, being human does have rules. Truth has rules, as well as hard-and-fast demands. Truth will not be cheated or betrayed. Truth cannot be faked, or extended like a warranty, or cut to fit the Procrustean bed. It just is. Truth is. There is nothing else. Imagine that! We dither and debate and put our thumb on the scale to give ourselves a small advantage, but advantage does not exist, it is ephemeral, and still a cheat in the long run. Truth is. Being is. Honesty is all there is. Existence is truth, with an unyielding foundation—or none at all; which is scarier? I think truth matters but is not material. There’s not even a choice. All of our choices are imaginary escapes. To be still, silent, unreaching, unmoving, even burning with desire… Desire is a gift because it is fuel for being, and being still. It does not require tossing itself like a hot potato, hoping for another to catch it, keep it, nurture it, and pass it back and forth until the heat disperses.

If I can’t toss my hot love potato to a suitable (and willing) mate, then what is there to do? Loving, longing, lounging, logging. OK, logging won’t help, but maybe longing. What does one long for if not the unattainable? And what does one do with a lifetime of repressed power? If I let it grow and be, it will guide me. It will guide me right back to myself, because, really, it’s the only place to be. Longing is not for something, it’s an expression of self. Putting oneself out there by going nowhere. I do not long for, I just long.

At least, now, in my semi-dotage—I put myself somewhere around October 12th in the metaphor of months equaling a life—I am surely still capable of spinning golden threads of illusion, but I am also a seasoned veteran of the ineluctable Real: the stronger force—the stronger desire—which is for truth. Truth of my feeling. Truth of my lover’s feeling. Truth of relationship and loving connection whether or not the connection is the one desired in the moment. Honesty in talking about these things with openness, understanding of risk, self-awareness, love for the other even when her truth means she has to reject the offer, the longing, the desire. One knows one is loved when one is turned down so gently, almost wistfully.

A crisis of faith would be to dwell on what might have been at the expense of what is. What is true. Right here, right now. There is no other place I want to be.

 I was alive and I waited, waited
I was alive and I waited for this
Right here, right now
There is no other place I want to be
Right here, right now
Watching the world wake up… in me.

(“Right Here, Right Now,” sung by Jesus Jones; slight edit by Mare)



the lighter side!

So now I’ll tell you about my flight to S.F. At Chicago O’Hare (an airline-sponsored ring of hell) we sat on the runway for the usual unit of time (long). I dozed off, having taken the requisite Dramamine and lorazepam, and awoke as if after an entire night’s sleep to hear the pilot announce, “Ready for takeoff.” I was alarmed and asked my seat mate, a young man, “You mean we haven’t even left yet?” He looks out the window and dryly points out the obvious, that “we’re still on the ground.” I can see a large American Airlines building in the distance and, indeed, I can see ground, but in my drug-addled state I thought for a moment that I had slept all the way to San Francisco and the plane was now about to take off for somewhere else. I just said, “Oh my God” and fell back asleep. I was glad later that I hadn’t jumped up and cried, “I forgot to get off the plane!” The only other time I spoke to that guy was when I saw a flight attendant preparing the pilot’s meal. We in first class had been given the choice of spinach cannelloni or chicken cacciatore, but when the flight attendant got to me, the cannelloni was gone already and she had to give me a detailed explanation of which passengers got first choice: global, premiere, super-duper (I quickly lost track of United’s superlative brand names), front to back of cabin, most miles flown, etc. (Those last two don’t even make sense: your seat in the 6-row cabin is not determined by your customer status). So I picked at the chicken, ate a roll, and pondered how even paying for first class doesn’t guarantee you’ll get all the perks. You get a hot towel, though, and hot nuts, which impress me a lot less than they did on my first first class flight. So when I saw what the pilot was getting, I turned to my seat mate and said, with heavy emphasis, “The pilot got a baked potato.” The guy had to remove one earphone to hear me. “What?” “The pilot got a baked potato.” We chuckled in mock outrage, and I was quite proud of my brazen importuning of this perfect stranger.

I’ve noticed a difference in how I deal with strangers these days, especially during a painting intensive. Everywhere we went in the City, I felt like I was facing each person we encountered with my “front” completely undefended. It seemed so much easier than trying to shrink back and hide behind an imaginary shield of invisibility. My back, of course, was spine-sturdy, a literal back-up should things go wrong. Sensing danger or disdain, the openness shuts down quietly, like a Kindle cover clicking quietly closed (I should have gone into advertising). A case in point: I did not feel open to my seat mate on the flight back home. There was something about him, or the way he ignored me, I’m not sure what it was, but I held myself back and we didn’t say a word to each other. I wasn’t hiding from him, just self-contained. Thanks, 12 years of somatic psychotherapy!

Terry and I had a great week—with each other, with the other painters, and with the many strangers and old friends we encountered during our daily rounds of lunch, dinner, and grocery shopping. We stayed in a different house this time, in Bernal Heights a block off Mission, and enjoyed the amazing views and spacious upstairs with a beautiful long table that was our command center for eating, computing, and piling stuff. It had lots of stairs to contend with, but I’m happy to report that I had no walking-related pains during the week. I had my cane along, but I was able to get around pretty well without it. This was huge… and stood me in good stead when I had to walk/scuttle/shuffle halfway across O’Hare to make my connecting flight home when the cart driver off-loaded me far from the gate. (A not very interesting story for another day, perhaps when I publish my Stories That Don’t Fit Anywhere Else, and Aren’t That Interesting Anyway.)

Driving all over the City (and dipping down into Marin briefly) in a cramped and weak-willed Ford Fiesta, I had a few close calls in traffic, but I got us home without any major damage to ourselves or the car, didn’t I? I mean, that red arrow at the ramp onto South 101 in Mill Valley was obscured by my sun visor. And that yellow car on Mission came out of nowhere! Plus, I had no choice but to blast through the red light at Sloat and Ocean, because I was caught in the intersection and had to keep going, I couldn’t go back: “I have to! I have to!,” I cried, as T gazed in horror at the three or four lanes of traffic to our right that now had the right of way. Occasionally, I let her drive and we both felt empathy for the other’s position: She had to make the crucial decisions when there was no traffic light to legislate our stop-and-go, and I experienced the helplessness of having no control over those decisions except to say “Wait!” or “Go, go go!”


Yes, I’m all over the place with my stories, but though the 7 days seemed to progress in a linear fashion—night/day, night/day—the way one remembers things is not linear at all. It’s all a mishmash in there, and one thought that rises to the surface may lead to another that is not obviously related. Welcome to the human brain.


New restaurants. L’Avenida is gone now, a huge disappointment. We tried to go to El Toreador in West Portal, but there was a long wait. So we strolled across the street to Spiazzo at 6:30 on a Saturday night and were surprised to get seated within 15 minutes. Excellent food, too. We also had two meals at Tacos Los Altos on Cortland in Bernal Heights. I enjoyed the super veggie burrito, but the second meal of steak enchiladas didn’t meet the high standards of Mexican food that I have become accustomed to in Wisconsin. (I had lunch at El Sarape after I touched down at GRB, because, well, when in Green Bay, eat like the Green Bayans do. My favorite Mexican-American waiter there always remembers me and my sisters, so I thought I was giving him and the restaurant a compliment when I told him that I preferred the food he was serving me to what I had had in San Francisco. Too late, I realized that I was saying more about my limited palate than I was about the heavily Midwesternized meals they serve around here. The waiter said he was from Los Angeles and preferred the food out there. Yeah, OK, never mind.

The painting week was filled with good will and great conversations with Penny R, Diane L, Diane D (who didn’t paint and could only join us for dinner on Wednesday and Friday nights, but her presence was a mitzvah as always), Sandra, Carol, Kate, Linda, Kyle…. Barbara was a delight and a challenge—deeply caring, deeply trusting of her own truth, and deeply in tune with our process(es). Even when I wasn’t sure I was “feeling anything,” it was clear that “something was going on”; I think painting has made me lose my words, or at least my exacting ones. Barbara pointed out that I’m comfortable in the world of language, and that living in the body is more difficult for me. The shift confounds me, because I’ve always believed that coming up with just the right word or string of words is as good as any inchoate “feeling.” I’ve always thought I would be more comfortable as a head in a jar (but not Pandora’s), as long as I could write or speak. Maybe with Google glass and other high technical arts to remove the body’s distractions from the interface, humanity will eventually do away with the physical world altogether?  (But I would miss cats; maybe I could have a cat head in a jar next to me. Oh, now I’m just being silly.)

One day in the sharing, I relayed a true story I’d read online about a man who had been swallowed by a hippopotamus. Turns out he wasn’t actually swallowed (I’d been thinking: There are only two exits—which one did he escape from, and how?). He told it this way: “I was aware that my legs were surrounded by water, but my top half was almost dry. I seemed to be trapped in something slimy. There was a terrible, sulphurous smell, like rotten eggs, and a tremendous pressure against my chest. My arms were trapped but I managed to free one hand and felt around – my palm passed through the wiry bristles of the hippo’s snout. It was only then that I realised I was underwater, trapped up to my waist in his mouth.” Eventually, the hippo “spit [him] out.” My favorite part was the guy’s conclusion: “Time passes very slowly when you’re in a hippo’s mouth.” I thought it was quite an instructive message, raising questions as to the nature of time, perception, and WTF he was doing that close to a hippo. (Answer: He’s a river guide—a one-armed river guide at this point.)

I think the biggest laff of the week came when Barbara told us about being hugged by a neighbor who always says, “God bless you.” Barbara was unsure how to respond. “You too” didn’t seem right. Even less so: “Back atcha.” I suggested she answer her in German, in which Barbara is fluent. So Amanda pipes up: “Gesundheit?” OK, so you had to be there, but the thought of saying “Gesundheit” to someone who’s just said “God bless you” was just too hilarious. We laughed like crazy persons.

Neither Terry nor I could sleep the night before we were to leave, so we started the “day” at 2 a.m. We followed her GPS to SFO, dropped the rental car off at Hertz, and parted on the air train because we were leaving from different terminals. It was bittersweet. At security, I was astonished to find that the TSA (now CSA?) were all very kind. I never thought I’d hear the words “Have a good flight” in that corner of bureaucracy. And instead of marching me off to the side and demanding that I surrender my half bottle of water or be “escorted out,” the woman who found it in my bag merely asked if I wanted to go outside the security area and drink it or if she should toss it. Faced with this display of rationality and human feeling, I was practically speechless. In the terminal proper, I stopped at a kiosk to buy some non-bomb-containing water, and I asked the seller why everyone in the airport was so nice now: they’d never been before. She responded… nicely… that it was better than being nasty, and I told her I appreciated it. It really made everything about the airport experience more tolerable.

My flight home was relatively uneventful—I especially appreciate the jet stream, if that’s what explains the much shorter time in the air when going east—except in Chicago (hub of all airline ills) where something happened to the “auxiliary power” and we had to wait on the plane for airport maintenance to come and fix it. The delay was probably less than an hour, but I always have a heightened sense of fear when I get that close to home and face the possibility of being stranded, as I did a couple years ago.

The cats were thrilled to have me home, and for the first day and a half they didn’t let me out of their sight. I’m sure my sister Barb did a great job of caring for them—including a repeat of the lying on the floor by the bed and singing “Jesus Christ Superstar” to Luther when he thought he had found a secure hiding place. She says he eventually got out from under the bed and walked slowly away… I picture him backing slowly away, with two paws out as if to say, “That’s fine, don’t get up.”

My method of unpacking after a trip involves several days and an attempt to expend no extra energy whatsoever. If I happen to be going into the bathroom, I’m happy to pick up a used Kleenex or a plastic bottle of lotion along the way and bring it with me. If I’m going downstairs, I’ll bring along a t-shirt that needs to go in the laundry, as long as I don’t have to go out of my way. This doesn’t work for very long, because eventually I have to take active steps to empty the suitcase and organize the clean vs. dirty clothes, but it lets me feel for a short time like I’m getting away with something.

img001 copy 2

Oh, what will become of me?

Mary McKenney

mary’zine #60: January 2013

January 4, 2013

Flying to San Francisco for a painting intensive is a lot like taking my cat to the vet. In both cases I think I can handle it, but there are certain things over which I have little or no control: (1) the cat; (2) United Airlines.

Either I’ve let down my vigilance or Luther has increased his. I had to take him in for a very simple procedure: to remove the stitches from his MTF surgery (male-to-a-gash where his privates used to be). I usually have no trouble grabbing him and sticking him in the carrier. But he had been watching and learning: he would get suspicious when I put socks on, or when I closed both doors to my bedroom (so he couldn’t hide under the bed). I try to remain calm and not give off any vibes of “I am about to pick you up, cat,” but he’s very sensitive to nonverbal cues. Let’s face it, he has nothing else to do all day. So this time he figured it out, and I kid you not, I spent one-and-a-half hours chasing him up and down the stairs. (It was a low-speed chase on my part.) He would wait at the top or bottom of the stairs until I almost reached him and then he would take off. He got behind the washer and dryer and tucked himself into a hole in the dry wall. I couldn’t move the appliances, and pleading with him in a reasonable tone of voice didn’t work, so I got out the vacuum cleaner and flushed him out with the sound he likes least in the world. Then it was up the stairs again, and on and on. About an hour into this fiasco, I stopped to catch my breath, leaning on a short stand-alone bookcase and looking down at Luther who was lounging on the other side. He averted his eyes, so I knew he knew he was being a very bad boy. I explained to him, “I can’t do this all day, you know. You’re going to have to give up sometime, because I’m not going to!” With that, we took up the chase again. I finally trapped him in the upstairs bathroom.

United Airlines is even more difficult to deal with, because you’re completely at the mercy of snow, rain, wind, fog, missing planes, late planes, planes that won’t move, planes that can’t move, mysterious demands from the air traffic controllers (inadequately explained by the pilot), mechanical difficulties, missing crew members, not enough food on board, an overhead bin that won’t close, a missing sticker on the pilot’s control panel. This last one happened to my friend P in October. FAA regulations would not permit the plane to fly without this sticker! I asked her if it was a happy face, or maybe “My honor student can beat up your honor student.” There is no end to the excuses for why a plane cannot go when it’s time. On my most recent trip, there was a 45-minute delay at O’Hare because some plane that was in our way needed a “pusher.” That’s when I learned that a plane can’t go in reverse (wouldn’t that be a sight in the sky? backwards-flying airplanes?), it has to be pushed out of the gate. There was also much yelling back and forth over the heads of the waiting passengers between two employees at the far ends of the gate, white phones to their ears, trying to convey information or questions either to the other gate person or perhaps to the person at the other end of the other gate person’s phone. It was impossible to determine what they were talking about, and whether it was good or bad news for us, the passenger/hostages. But once we got going, the flight to S.F. was uneventful and, I have to admit, they served a delicious tomato soup in first class.

[As I write this, I’m half-watching the “KittenCam” on YouTube. Brutus sometimes watches it with me and will look behind the laptop to see where the kitties are. Poor dumb animals, there’s so much in life they don’t understand. The mother cat is lying on top of a rudimentary cardboard castle, and there’s a wide entrance for the kittens to get inside. I hear a lot of scratching, and I look over to see that one of the kittens has managed to climb up the back of the castle and is lying next to mom, oh bliss to be the only child for a moment. One of the other kittens is trying to figure out how to climb up there too, but he/she gives up and leaves the castle to lie on a blanket in front of it. The blanket is blue; is it meant to represent a moat? Am I giving this too much thought?]

At the baggage claim at SFO, I was waiting in vain for my luggage to come down the chute when a United employee came up to me and asked if I was looking for a purple hard-sided suitcase. He said it had come in on an earlier flight, so it was waiting for me in the Odd Sizes area. I asked him how he knew it was mine, and he said he remembered my name from the wheelchair list (I get ferried around O’Hare and SFO). Which really didn’t explain it, but I guess my cane gave me away. So I claimed my suitcase and schlepped up to the air train with all my stuff: suitcase, heavy carry-on bag, painting tube, and heavy wool coat. (I don’t understand the architecture of that part of the airport. I had to take an elevator up and then another elevator down.) I picked up my car at the Rental Car Center and was delighted to see that Alamo was much more efficient than Avis ever was.

I’d brought along my GPS, so before proceeding to the flat in Bernal Heights that Terry had rented for us, I typed in “Golden Gate Park” so I could stop at Andronico’s for supplies, maybe pick up a burrito at L’Avenida. Complacent with the smooth way the trip had gone so far, I proceeded onto the freeway in the heavy rain and dark, pretty much remembering the way over to 280 but figuring it wouldn’t hoit to use the GPS. It wasn’t until I saw the “380 to 280” sign out of the corner of my eye that I realized that Gloria (Positioning System) was guiding me onto 101 North. Very soon I discovered that she was trying to make me go over the Bay Bridge! Her demands became more and more insistent until I finally unplugged her and decided to fly (so to speak) solo.

I wasn’t sure how to get away from the dreaded bridge and find the heart of the city. There used to be a sign that said, “Last exit to S.F.,” but  I didn’t see it this time. At one point, I thought, “I could die tonight.” The crowded freeway was a nightmare, especially when I had to change lanes, and the city streets, when I finally got to one, were almost worse because of all the pedestrians and bike riders and still too many cars. When one car started backing toward me without regard for the Pauli Exclusion Principle (no two objects can occupy the same place at the same time), I leaned on the horn, and a guy on a bike riding by called out, “Chill, lady.” I tried to think of a biting retort, but I didn’t have the energy. Besides, it was probably good advice. At a stoplight I tinkered with the radio, got it turned on, and almost got blasted out of the car it was so loud. Then I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. Not for the first time, I thought, “Why do I do this to myself?”

To make a long story not much shorter, I managed to find Polk St., then Pine, and drove across town to L’Avenida (it was closed) and Andronico’s, where I bought water, Frappuccino, eggs, butter, English muffins, and capellini with artichokes and pine nuts. Oh, did I forget to mention the lemon tart? By 9:00 I made it over to the flat, which is on a nice quiet street across from Holly Park. After meeting the “hosts” and getting a tour of the premises, I ate half the capellini and the lemon tart and retired early. Terry wasn’t flying in until the next day, Friday.

I woke to darkness and still-pouring rain. The mattress was so soft that I couldn’t turn over: an inexorable gravity-like force kept pulling me to the edge. When I reached for my cell phone on the night stand, I fell out of bed! The phone hit the floor, too, and broke apart, the three pieces scattering. It took several minutes of sweeping my cane under the bed and a chair to find the battery. Besides being bruised by the fall, I had a sharp pain under my right heel when I tried to walk. I think that was from the schlepping I had to do in the 3 airports the day before (the wheelchair rides get you only so far), not from landing on the floor.

To say that I was discouraged at that point is a vast understatement. Each time I go to these painting intensives, I’m six months or another year older (and deeper in debt), and my mobility is increasingly compromised. Every movement is difficult, and every new environment seems designed to stymie me. Here is a perfect example. The bathroom door would get stuck on the bath mat when I tried to open or close it, so I had to bend down and pick the mat up to move it out of the way. The first time I did this, it wouldn’t come up, and I finally realized that I was leaning on it with the cane in my other hand. This also illustrates my complicity in my other, nonphysical problems, I’m sorry to say.

Terry was also having a trip from hell, which I didn’t know about until after I’d had lunch with Barbara. We got burritos from La Corneta in Glen Park and ate them at her lovely outer Mission apartment. I once speculated that eternity is the “time” between meetings with the other painters, because it never feels like time has passed, we pick up where we left off. I got a text from Terry saying she was stuck in Philadelphia. (I wanted to work in W.C. Fields’ famous epitaph, “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” but it turns out to be apocryphal; damn!) She finally got in late Friday night.

On Saturday morning it was old home week at the painting studio. Only 4 of 25 painters were “new” (not known to me). Some of us have been painting together for over 30 years. I was delighted to see that Diane L. and Diane D. were there, also Sima, who had lost her job the day before and so was freed up to paint. Greeting everyone, hugging and exchanging gladness at seeing each other again, went a long way toward turning my travel woes on their head and making me see that “it was all worth it.” All weekend I was high on the people, the ease of painting, and the realization that I seem to have “gotten out of my own way” (the cane pinning down the bathmat notwithstanding), able to accept my mistakes, petty thoughts, and social awkwardness. It’s so easy once you know how: if you accept yourself and your imperfections, you can note what happened and then move on, rather than spiraling down into the useless, self-fulfilling prophesy of self-judgment.

Yet despite this, part of me wondered if I was getting too cocky, if I was going to get my comeuppance. And it did come, but not, I think, as a punishment for feeling good about myself. Accepting yourself in general doesn’t mean you will never fail or flounder; it works on the other end, when the worst has already happened. On the third day of painting, I had a sudden insight that I wanted to share in the group, even though it was in response to someone else’s sharing. Barbara’s attempt to bring “painting consciousness” into our relationships with one another in the group is fairly new and difficult to carry out in practice. The painting itself feels completely natural, because you do exactly what comes to you. But in the sharing, you need a higher level of awareness so that you honor each person’s space to speak without responding, giving advice, or going off on your own tangents. The sharing is not a discussion group or a casual conversation, and in that sense it feels unnatural… to wait and consider one’s intentions before blurting something out, for example. I seem to be the main blurter in the group. Back in the day, I was so shy that I could never think of anything to say or, if I did, could not bring myself to speak up. Now I’m kind of a loose cannon, putting myself out there, taking risks with what I say (an avocational hazard of being smart and funny), and getting caught up in meta disagreements with Barbara about trust, permission, rules, authority, and approval seeking. I seem always to be seeing a naked emperor in front of me, rather than another sensitive human being who is doing the best she can.

It’s a painful process—pushing the boundaries, getting pushed back, afraid to give in to authority, afraid of “group think.” My earlier experience in a certain group can explain this, but it’s difficult to let go of that reflexive need to challenge when my hackles start rising up. So Barbara and I went back and forth for a while, I completely closed down in despair at not being “understood” and left to go to the bathroom so I could compose myself and blow my nose. (“I can’t keep my snot in my nose” was my elegant way of excusing myself.)

What happened when I rejoined the group was quite amazing, though I didn’t fully realize it at the time. My defenses simply let down—not because I was trying to be conciliatory, not because I had been persuaded by internal or external arguments—they just fell away, as if I had set down a heavy, unwieldy load. I told the group that I was “melting into not knowing.” This happens in painting, too, but it’s a completely new (to me) way to deal with interpersonal conflict. You can sharpen your verbal sword, parse your arguments, thrust and defend as long as you want, but the source of the problem cannot be reached until those defenses come down. When you see that there’s no intellectual road map, that only honesty and humility will change the dynamic, the problem dissolves. It’s an extraordinary thing to just give up, to be there with your whole self, not denying, not defending, just being, being open. Conflict dissolves with trust of self and other, not with the defeat of one over the other. Could this be women’s gift to the world? Barbara later said that these things (my rude rebellions) “need to come out” and that she “needs” me for that, so, once again, all was well that ended well.

Now that the heavy part is out of the way, I’m going to meander amongst my memories and relate some of the other interactions that happened during the week. There was so much humor and insight, coming from so many directions, that it was intoxicating. Even when no one was speaking, the silence throbbed and the feeling of connection and love was palpable. It didn’t have to be personal, which is the most amazing part of it. I love the personal, don’t get me wrong, but the discovery of connection through our common humanity can be just as strong.


Microscopic photo of Krameri erecta (purple heather) by Rob Kesseler. I love the heart shape and the protrusions… the hackles of the heart?

One of the people I felt especially connected with this time, both personally and in the larger sense, was Jan E. She had the most amazing experience of love that came, she said, out of painting “nothing”: trees, blackness. There was an odd lack of correspondence between what she was painting and what she felt. She was at the painting table at the same time as Claudia and suddenly was overcome by the realization, “I LOVE Claudia!” Then, “I LOVE Penni!” There was a purity there, in that eruption of affection. “I never loved Gene [her husband] that much!,” she exclaimed. Her description of this experience was so funny and felt so true. (Believe me, I am not doing it justice.) She was also having experiences outside the studio, such as wanting to hug the man sitting next to her on the bus, and noticing the beautiful face of a child in a schoolyard (she had never really “seen” children before: “I mean, I knew they were there….”).

Jan also brought poems to read aloud in the group. From having no interest in “mystic poetry,” she had become fascinated by it in the past year. Here’s one she read, by the Sufi poet Hafiz:

With That Moon Language

Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them,
“Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud;
Someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying,
With that sweet moon
What every other eye in this world
Is dying to

Years ago I went through a long period of spiritual longing, of appreciating the mystic expression of God as “the Beloved.” It’s intoxicating, gives one hope, is beautiful and romantic. But I came to associate this beauty with a teacher who was selfish, manipulative and dishonest, and I distanced myself from this romantic view as I distanced myself from her—but now I feel more open to it, though still skeptical of the idea of “worship.” But Jan’s stories of spontaneous feelings of love clearly came from a place of innocence, and I was very touched. That night I e-mailed her to say, “I LOVE you.”

Jan also read Hafiz’ poem “Cast All Your Votes for Dancing.” Best title ever.


Liat had to report for jury duty that week and was not happy about it, fearing that she would get picked for a jury and would miss the rest of the week of painting. She was gone one morning because she had gotten “the call,” but she came back to the studio after lunch, explaining that they hadn’t put her on a jury. At the courthouse she was so happy about it that when she got on an elevator, there was another woman there to whom she said, “I really want to hug you right now.” The woman replied, “I don’t know how I feel about that.” This was hilarious, because we knew exactly how she felt but also how the other woman felt. Can the world survive our spontaneous expressions of love?


One morning Alyssa came over to me and thanked me for helping her last night. I asked her what she meant. I had helped her in a dream: She had found a dozen dead mice in the oven and I took them out for her. She hugged me in the dream. I was very touched by this. She didn’t know what to make of it so I hazarded a guess: Was she by any chance trying to get pregnant? She gaped at me. “Why would you ask me that?” It was the oven, as in “bun in the oven.” And her word “dozen,” associated with eggs. “But the mice were dead!” And from my limited knowledge of dream work a là Jeremy Taylor, I said, “All dreams come in the service of health and wholeness.” I have no idea what it meant that I was there helping her, but I felt honored.

Later, at the paint table with her, I noticed that she was using a lesser quality of white paint and pointed out that there was a thicker, nicer white available. She said, rather dismissively, “Oh, this is just for my mom’s hair.” I loved that.


I was painting near Martha, with whom I shared long hours of absorption in our own paintings that were suddenly broken by a sudden eruption into play and laughter. Diane D. told me I seemed “awfully chipper” one morning, and Martha immediately christened me “Chipper” and revealed that her own moniker was “Gidget.” She said it would be doubly ironic when we “got really dark” (as is our wont). I said, “Chipper is feeling moody today.” She asked if I thought the name was wrong. I said, “I’m not really feeling moody, I just thought it was funny.” I paused. “I lost several loved ones in a train wreck last night.” I sighed and put the back of my hand to my forehead. Martha said, “Oh, Chipper,” in the most sincere way possible. We laughed our heads off for a while and then went back to our paintings.


One day after lunch with Diane, Diane, and Terry, we stopped at a small market down the hill from the studio so I could get something sweet. There were several young Arab men outside, and an Arab man and woman, presumably married, inside. The man immediately tried to hustle me into buying more than the ice cream bar I had settled on. “We have sandwich, candy bar, we have hummus and baba ganoush.” I was feeling completely copacetic, so I just smiled and said, “This is all I want, I just had a big lunch.” He kept selling at me, but I think he knew I was a lost cause. Then Diane L. came in and asked if they had baba ganoush. The man was ecstatic. I walked outside and said “Hi” to the young men. I had noticed a sign for “Yelp” (the review website) in the window; it said “People on Yelp hate us!” I questioned the wisdom of hanging such a sign in their store, and the young men tried to explain that it was “a joke”—“it’s funny!” I replied, “Oh, it’s funny [not really]…. I just think it would make a bad impression on people who want to come in the store.” Then one of them pointed out a similar sign in the other window that read, “People on Yelp love us!” “Oh, I get it,” I said. It was such an innocent, happy exchange; I felt so open, so accepting of them and of myself.


I got permission from the person involved to tell most of these stories, but this one will be anonymous because I don’t know if she’d want to be identified. During one sharing, the woman next to me started to cry. She’s very verbal, working class like me, heady… is usually a talker, with all sorts of ideas about herself and her place in the group. Finally, she just gave it up and started sobbing. For moments at a time I let myself feel her pain: It was excruciating. But I didn’t let it take me over, I just sat with her and admired her willingness to reveal herself so deeply. Later I told her this, and she said she could feel my presence next to her. What an honor, to be a witness to someone else’s pain and not freak out or plunge into my own, not be afraid or overly solicitous, not try to “help” or give advice. This is the whole point of not commenting on other people’s sharings, and this time I got it. The person who is revealing herself honestly has the space and time to truly feel it and let it expand or subside on its own. And, speaking from personal experience, the silence of the others is not off-putting, it’s the highest form of communion there is: witnessing without interfering—simply accepting, because we all know that it could just as easily be us feeling the depth of our own pain, that no one is truly alone in the group.


Penni had brought copies of her newly published book, Hubert Keller’s Souvenirs: Stories and Recipes from My Life, which she had written “with” Keller. It’s a beautiful book, and I bought a copy for my friend P. Penni agreed to mail it for me so I wouldn’t have to schlep it home in my suitcase. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time, but our interactions about the book made me emboldened enough to say to her one lunchtime, “I want to tell you something that I’ve never told anyone else in my entire life…. You have a great ass.” She roared with laughter and hugged me. She said she had been aware that she was perhaps sticking it out a lot. I said, “That’s how I noticed! I didn’t go looking for it!” It was a delightful exchange.


One morning while painting, I saw Karine in the sharing room crying pretty hard and writing in a journal. She spent the whole morning out there, it seemed. Someone asked me if I knew what was going on with her, and I said I didn’t but that it seemed serious, like a break-up or someone had died. But we found out what it was on the last day of the intensive, when she read the group a poem she had written—her first ever. An encounter with a mosquito in her bedroom the night before had brought a flood of feelings and insights. “[A] mosquito was my gift last night,” it begins… “a valiant hero i could not vanquish with righteous rage / who wouldn’t let me sleep thru this life.” It’s extraordinary what the urge toward creation will call us to do.


Early in the week, I had a laughing fit that started at lunch with the usual suspects, at Chloe’s. Well, first there was a whole thing about my bag, my carry-on bag that I was using as a purse. Diane L. kept teasing me about it, there was nowhere to put it, what did I need such a big bag for. So I was kind of propping it on my lap against the table, and, I couldn’t see this, but the silverware that was closest to it started being drawn to the bag and sticking to it. Diane D. removed a fork, and next a knife glommed on. We speculated on how it would be a perfect way to steal silverware. (I guess it was static electricity?) Anyway, it was bizarre. We all laughed about it, but for me it triggered one of those “can’t stop laughing” experiences that are way more fun for the laugher than the laughees. The others also teased me for always ordering the same thing there, a BLT with avocado on rosemary toast. I don’t see what’s so wrong about ordering what you want, but this time I was already laughing and feeling a bit wacky, so when the waitress came around and it was my turn to order, I said (through tears of hysteria), “I’m going to try something new for a change.” I could hardly get the words out, I was laughing so hard. Then I ordered the same-old BLT with avocado, and for some reason I found this so funny, and of course no one else could see the humor in it, which made it funnier yet. Later that afternoon, while painting, I started to remember this, and the laughing fit got going again. I couldn’t stop. It almost seems more acceptable to be crying than laughing in the group, because no one questions why you’re crying, but if you’re laughing (the whole world laughs with you?), no, people are desperately curious to know why. Right in the middle of this self-induced hilarity, my cell phone rang, and it was my sister Barb texting me, “The boys say ‘Hi’!” (She calls my cats “the boys.”) This sent me over the top, and I had to go outside to compose myself. I think that was the day that I later made the faux pas in the sharing (interrupting/commenting). I guess I got so loose from laughing that I forgot to pay attention.


One day I was in the bathroom when seemingly the entire group in the studio burst out singing: “My Cherie Amour / lovely as a summer’s day / My Cherie Amour, distant as the Milky Way / My Cherie Amour, pretty little one that I adore / You’re the only girl my heart beats for / How I wish that you were mine.” When I got back to my painting, someone explained that a car had gone by blasting that song. It was a lovely burst of spontaneity.

on driving in the city

I had many unnerving experiences while driving in the city that week, and you can imagine how much more unnerving it was for my hapless passenger, Terry. She would alert me to pedestrians who had just stepped into the crosswalk, or to bikes and cars that suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Strangely, I managed fine when she wasn’t in the car. The scariest time was one night when I was trying to get from the east end of Golden Gate Park over to 6th Ave. For some reason I thought I was on the street that merges into Lincoln Ave. going west, but turns out I was on the other side, and when I “merged,” I discovered that I was driving directly toward a sea of headlights a couple of blocks away! T calls out, “Get on the sidewalk!,” which, “No shit!” and I blithely drive up on the sidewalk at a driveway cutout, and continue to the end of the block where I could turn onto 6th. A guy up ahead was riding a bike toward us, and my maneuver sent him off the sidewalk into the street. I thought, “You want to share the road? Go ahead, I’m taking the sidewalk!” It was surprisingly pleasant to drive on the sidewalk, I must say. Later, this story became the highlight of many conversations, and when I defended myself by saying I’ve never had an accident, Diane L. pointed out that her 90-something clients who want to keep driving say the same thing.


my painting

For like the third or fourth intensive in a row, the painting was easy. I can’t explain it, but it feels so good. After a couple of fast, warm-up paintings, I started one with absolutely no idea what I was going to paint. I started with my body, lying horizontally as in a bathtub, and as I was painting it, I sensed water under me, then blood, and finally I saw that she/I was dead! I’ve painted myself dead before, it was no big deal, but all the other times the body was still, devoid of life: still life. This time I became aware of all the biological processes that continue after the person dies. We like to say that death is a part of life, but life is also a part of death. We think it’s the end when the brain and heart stop, but there is so much else going on! I had a blast painting the organs rotting and the skin deteriorating and being consumed from within, some of it by fire, because of course the decay is very active—alive—and other creatures feed on the by-products.

So I painted water and blood and then a Being who was just there, observing and holding and honoring. It didn’t feel macabre at all; it was exciting to have this insight that seemed obvious when I thought about it but had never occurred to me before.

That painting put me in the groove, and when I started a new one I absolutely felt like it didn’t matter what I painted or even whether I knew what the images were: like a flower/vagina growing out of my dead body’s neck: no need to explain! (As if I could!)

I think Jan sent me this poem. It feels especially true in painting, but I can also feel it in my daily life.

Late, by myself, in the boat of myself,
no light and no land anywhere,
cloudcover thick.  I try to stay
just above the surface, yet I’m already under
and living within the ocean. 

good times

Our little dining-out group held fast to our traditions: Lakeside for lunch on Saturday, dinner that night at Clement St. Bar & Grill, Alice’s on Sunday, Chloe’s on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday. Wednesday and Thursday were special, as I’ll explain.

Terry and I had a wonderful week together. Our morning routine was that I would get up first, take a shower, and make breakfast. She would then take her shower, we would eat, and she would clean up. She found out when garbage pick-up day was and volunteered to put it and the recycling out the night before. This was on Wednesday, our half day of painting, when we had a pizza lunch provided by the studio. After we finished eating we were treated to belly dancing by Claudia, amplified flute by Barbara accompanied by Alyssa’s beautiful singing, and then I-forget-what-it’s-called, a group poem? where we passed around the mic and added to the poem or made lovely or raucous sounds. I usually don’t feel comfortable during these purely social gatherings—harking back to high school cafeteria days, afraid no one would want to sit with me. I keep forgetting that I’m not 14 anymore. But Alyssa sat down next to me, Kate and Penni were close by, and we had rousing conversations in different configurations.

Terry wanted to do some laundry that afternoon, so she asked around for where there was a laundromat… only to be told that there was one across the street from the studio! We had obviously seen it for years but never took it in. While she did her laundry, I went back to the flat, which was only about 3 minutes from the studio, and told her to call me when she was done and I would come back and get her. My intention was to read and then nap until she called, but instead I decided to put the garbage out myself. It wasn’t a big deal, but when I picked her up later, I told her I had a surprise for her but that it wasn’t a material object. She looked around the flat, puzzled, didn’t know what to look for, and I finally asked her what she had been planning to do that night. She mentioned a couple of things and finally said, dubiously, “Well, I was going to take out the garbage…. Oh!” And she went and looked in all three wastebaskets and started doing a combination victory/gratitude dance that included elaborate bowing with both arms while tiptoe-dancing. It was highly amusing and very satisfying for me. If you haven’t seen Terry dance, you ain’t seen nuthin’. We had so much fun together, all the time.

That night we met Diane, Diane, and Gloria (Diane D.’s friend, not G. Positioning System) for dinner at the Buckeye Roadhouse in Mill Valley. It’s my favorite restaurant in the Bay Area. We had a delightful time in a beautiful setting, lots of Christmas lights, and they’ve taken down the mounted animal heads that used to adorn the place when it was a hunting lodge. I had a vodka lemonade, some excellent bread (and I’m not usually a “bread person”), a Dungeness crab Louie salad (best one I’ve ever had), and a slab of coconut cream pie. Heaven. I can’t get crab at home, just “krab,” which is a faux version that I’ve never tried for fear of being desperately disappointed. Will I be writing down this meal in my “diet diary”? No way!

On Thursday, Kate and I had lunch at Eric’s, a Chinese restaurant on Church St., and had a nice time talking about painting, editing, and her upcoming move to the East Bay.

After painting that day, Terry went to see the movie Life of Pi with Diane L. Again, I had the plan of reading and sleeping, but I turned the wrong way going back to the flat, tried to “go around the block,” and got completely lost. I found myself on a street with trolley tracks, and dark buildings rearing up high on both sides. I felt like I was in Gotham. Eventually, I found my way out of there. We needed eggs for the next morning, so I was going to get some at Andronico’s and hopefully get a burrito at L’Avenida, but it was closed again. I never did get to go there. For some reason, the thing I most covet at Andronico’s is their jumbo artichokes. They sell them back home, but they look terrible and taste like nothing. On an impulse I decided to buy two and take them home, either in my luggage or in my painting tube. Well, they were way too big for the tube, but I managed to fit them into my suitcase along with a couple of Henning Mankell Wallander books I’d bought there and some cute gifts I’d received from D, D, and T.

the love offerings


For our final sharing on Friday, we each brought in a “love offering.” A few people sang (Carol: “I’m a Believer”) or played a song on their iPod (Linda: “Love Shack”); some read a poem, told a story about their lives, or showed their paintings from the week. Polly walked around the circle with her painting and told a sweet story about it, but unfortunately I don’t remember a thing. The variety and creativity of the offerings was inspiring. I had downloaded “Home” by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, which Terry and I had heard on the radio as we were driving to the studio that morning. I introduced it by saying I dedicated it to everyone in the room. “Home is whenever I’m with you.” Terry and I hadn’t heard it all the way through, so I said if there was any reference to making love, they could ignore that part. A rush went through me when it started to play.

That day we had our final lunch at Chloe’s. Earlier in the week we had discovered that our favorite waiter, T.J., who had quit a few years before to move to Thailand, was back. He is the sweetest man. As we were tallying up our money to pay the bill, he came by and gave us a brownie with fresh strawberries to share. I had been about to order carrot cake, so he brought that too, and turns out he didn’t charge for either dessert. I wanted to hug him—not for the free dessert but for who he is. As I wrote on my Facebook page recently, I love men sometimes. When they’re good, they’re very very good. The rest, you know.

After all the sad good-byes at the end of the day, Diane D., Terry, Carol and I went out seeking a last group experience. As we did in May, we started out at the Bliss Bar in Noe Valley and ate at Pasta Pomodoro. It was quite late when we got back to the flat. I only got 2 hours’ sleep that night, because….

the final push

Up at the crack of 2:00 a.m. Saturday, Terry and I managed to get our luggage and ourselves out of the flat without waking up our hosts. GloriaPS took us on a somewhat convoluted route to the Rental Car Center, and I had many moments of panic during which T kept encouraging me and confirming where I was supposed to turn or not turn, and when we got there she said, “Good job, Mare!” Still, I felt shaken. As often as I’ve made that trip from SF to SFO, I’m never completely sure what lane to be in and what exits to take.

I turned the car in—again, a much easier procedure at Alamo than at Avis—and we made our way back to the air train. We were leaving from different terminals so said our good-byes on the train. I laboriously made my way to the United check-in area, where there was a very long line (one of those double-back kinds) even at 4 a.m. I eventually got to the front of the line and was told that first class check-in was farther down the hall. No signs, of course. So I dragged myself and my stuff down there, got my bag checked, and said to the guy, as I always do, “I’m going all the way to Green Bay…,” because they always only mention Chicago. “Right,” they always say.

The flight to Chicago was great. I slept most of the way, waking only to accept my hot towel, hot nuts, and unidentifiable “breakfast”: mound of yellow, triangle of white, puck of brown. Also, we must have had quite the tailwind, because it only took about 3.5 hours. O’Hare was easier to navigate, too, because for some reason I didn’t have to go all the way to the F concourse to catch the smaller plane going north.

So all was hunky-dory until I got to Green Bay, prematurely thanking God, the universe, and United Airlines for getting me “home” (or at least within 50 miles) in one piece. I say prematurely, because my lovely purple suitcase had been left behind. As it dawned on me that my car keys were in the suitcase, my heart sank. The next flight from Chicago wasn’t due for another 6 hours or so. Fortunately, the sun was shining, and it was only mid-afternoon, so I called my sister Barb, who didn’t hesitate when I asked her to come pick me up. She’s nervous driving on the highway, but at least the big snowstorm wasn’t supposed to come until the next day, so she made it in record time. Usually a strict observer of the speed limit, she said she went as fast as “63 or 64 miles an hour!” (Actually, the speed limit is 65 for most of the way, but she was clearly pushing her own limits.) I appreciated her so much for doing that.

Terry and I both have painting tubes that Barb made for us. They’re colorful, covered (and laminated with Contac paper) with images that she found online, with our addresses and a strap so we can carry them over our shoulders. The tubes got a lot of attention at the studio, but T had told me that some of the TSA people had also been intrigued by hers. One of the guys called it “artsy.” No one had said anything about mine when I was traveling out there, but in Green Bay, a United employee who’s always really nice saw me and said, “What have we here?” He admired the tube, wanted to know what it was for, and finally said it was “artsy.” I haven’t heard that term since, like, high school. But apparently it’s the final word on Barb’s creations. I tried to interest him in my no-show-suitcase dilemma, but it was out of his hands.

I was told that the airport delivery service would bring the suitcase to my house when it came in. So at midnight, a haggard-looking middle-aged woman struggled up my front steps with it. I wondered how many deliveries she’d had to make that night, and I felt sorry for her having to do what has got to be a thankless job, so I gave her a $20 tip. She was clearly shocked, said, “Well, you brought a smile to my face! Not many people tip.” It made me feel good.

Barb’s son Brian, who lives in Chicago now, was home for the weekend. He had assured me that if I ever got stranded in Chicago, he’d drop everything and “take care of” me. That wouldn’t have worked this time, because, well, he wasn’t there. But on Sunday he drove me and Barb back down to the airport. The “big snowstorm” was just getting started. It was a treat to be a passenger for once. I sprung my Jeep from long-term parking, and instead of rushing home to avoid the snow, we decided to go to El Sarape for lunch, like, what the hell. The snowplows were out, and the highway is usually kept pretty clear, so we made it home without further incident. Barb asked if I was coming back that evening to watch our Sunday shows (Homeland and Dexter), and I thought, Oh shit. I was beyond exhausted. But when we got to her house I decided to watch the ones I had missed, then save the newer ones for later in the week. I relaxed into her recliner, she put a fuzzy blanket over me, and I missed at least half of both shows. Every now and then she would ask if I was awake and rewind to the last part I had seen. My baby sister takes such good care of me.

When I got home, I noticed that a luggage tag Diane L. had given me, which said “I’m not your bag” (dual entendres there) had come off. Damn! I figured it was stolen, or maybe I hadn’t attached it securely enough. I e-mailed her to tell her this, and she replied that she was laughing about it… “Life is just strange.” What a mature attitude. I’ll have to work on that.

Shoutout to Kerry and Dewey! When Kerry had volunteered to read the ‘zine online instead of on paper, Dewey somehow never got to see it. So now I’m sending them a paper copy and hope they both enjoy it.

I’m sorry I couldn’t include everyone by name in this tale. So much happening, so little remembering. But I meant what I said about how everyone in the group felt like “home” to me. Love you! Love you all!

Mary McKenney

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 #55: June 2012

June 9, 2012

The other day, a Friday, I actually had stuff to do. My days usually consist of drinking coffee, eating, napping, eating, napping, and so on until it’s the next day. But this day I had to pack up and ship some lingonberries to my friend Diane, take Luther to the vet for his allergy shot, get groceries, and stop by my sister Barb’s annual garage sale.

The garage sale was fun, (a) because I didn’t have to do any work, and (b) because my other sister K was there, and I rarely get a chance to talk with her one-on-one. Niece Lorraine did the heavy lifting, Barb collected and kept track of the money, and I alternately chatted with K and people-watched: a little girl delightedly paying for a hair ribbon with her own money; a man picking up a whole set of G.R.R. Martin books; a father sifting through boxes of HO train parts for his son; a man buying country music tapes for his mother; and a middle-aged woman buying a loose-leaf binder with paper and tabs in it. I was intrigued by the woman for some reason, so I tried to tease out of her what she was going to do with the binder: She didn’t look like a student. When I showed an interest, she hesitated, as if gauging how sincere I was. And finally she shared that she volunteers at Rainbow House (a local shelter) by helping the women there, whom she said she understands because she “used to be one of them.” I felt compassion for her, for her mature innocence and willingness to serve, in addition to the pleasure of giving attention to someone who might not get a lot of it. Sometimes I feel this is my real work in the world, to make these brief connections, like touching a wire to another wire and causing a spark. In most cases, the spark is just that. But I have been deeply affected by tiny acts of generosity or humor or courtesy, and so I hope I have done the same for others.

I’ll have to be careful, I might turn into an extrovert yet. It used to feel like an impossible burden to connect with a stranger, but I’m finding that it’s effortless, really, you don’t have to do anything in particular, just have an open heart and keen receptors. The main thing painting for process has done for me is to make me willing and able to go deeper with people (if they want to), even if the encounters barely last a minute. When you’re guarding yourself all the time (as I have been wont to do), you try to keep interactions to a minimum. But it’s wonderful to give of oneself: better than receiving, as they say.

On the first day of the sale, Barb, K, and Lorraine collectively made over $1,000. I made a quarter. That’s because I only brought a few paperbacks over for the sale, and sold one. Barb is consistently, insistently, fair and will pay me that quarter if it’s the last thing she ever does.

I got the lingonberries shipped off, bought broccoli, garlic, avocado, and cream soda at Angeli’s, and made it to the 4:00 vet appointment right on time. Luther had disappeared from all of his usual spots just as I was getting ready to go, but then he blew it by showing up. So I grabbed him, stuck him in the carrier, and we were off. We go to a clinic where there are several vets, but one of them is afraid of Luther. In fact, I’d go so far as to call him a pussy. Luther’s reputation for hissing, clawing, and launching himself out of the carrier at the nearest hand or face precedes him. But another vet, whom I’ll call the Cat Whisperer, has a gentle touch and gives the injection, instructing the assistant not to try to hold Luther down. He does it with just a towel laid lightly over Luther’s body rather than the lead-lined (I’m guessing) gloves, blanket, and strong-arm tactics of the Pussy Vet.

Barb has cat-sat for Luther and Brutus at least once a year for the past 8 years that I’ve been back here in the U.P. But when I went off to San Francisco for a painting intensive last month, she erred, and not on the side of caution. Thinking to entertain the lonely boys, she brought along a “fishing pole” cat toy, jiggled it in Luther’s direction, and he freaked out and ran under the bed. He continued to hide under the bed whenever she came over, so what did Barb do? I’m sure what anyone in her position would do: She lay down on the floor next to the bed, trying to coax him out, talking and singing to him. I asked her what she sang. You’ll never guess. “Jesus Christ Superstar.” This is an image that will be with me for a long, long time. I suspect that Luther felt more invaded than serenaded, but who knows. Anyway, I appreciate how she goes above and beyond. I will treat her to dinner at The Landing to say thanks.


The night I got home from San Francisco—as exhausted as I’ve ever been—I had catastrophic dreams. In one, I observed a pharmacist embezzling, and he threatened to kill me if I didn’t get out of there. Then I was there again with my sister, who thought it was all a  joke. I kept yelling at her, “This is really serious! He means it!” but she wouldn’t believe me. I got up around 6 a.m., had coffee and watched some of Mad Men, but then went back to sleep for several hours. The pharmacist had stolen my car (or so I surmised), so my sister and I and one of my cats were trying to flee on foot. We got to a town and spotted a courthouse, so I went inside to try to find a judge to do something about the pharmacist, but I couldn’t find the judge, there was only a phalanx of women who didn’t believe my story—one said my face was too calm-looking, even though I was yelling that it was a matter of life and death. Turns out that both the men and the women in the courthouse were corrupt and/or jaded. No one believed me or was willing to help me. (I don’t know where this sense of martyrdom is coming from.)

The dreams continued for the next 3 or 4 days. Was my brain letting go (or freaking out) after 10 days of physical strain, struggle, and intense immersion in the Unknown? One would love to know. One does not. (I meant “one” to mean “I”—I would love to know, I do not know—but it reads as if there are two, one of whom wants to know and one of whom does not want to know. That could be true, too.)

When I got up again at 11 a.m., I was still dog tired and still there was no resolution to the pharmacist problem. I gamely tried to put a few things away—or at least dump my dirty laundry out on the floor—but was so tired I didn’t even want to watch the rest of Mad Men. I discovered that water had spilled in my bag, all over a book I had just bought, and shampoo had leaked into my suitcase, neither of which I was in the mood to deal with, so I went back to bed.

The day of my flights home had been very long. After 3 hours’ sleep, I got up at 2 a.m. to get ready to go to the airport with Terry. (My plane left at 6 a.m.) We got lost somehow, and when we did find 280 and proceeded onto 380 to get over to 101, I hit a raccoon. It ran right out in front of the car, I cried “Oh no! Oh no!” and then “Fuck!” when we heard the thud, and I wanted to just sit and cry. But I knew I had to get us to the airport safely, so I didn’t have the luxury to spiral down into emotional chaos, as is my wont. (I have been using the term “wont” a lot lately, because I finally looked it up to see how it’s pronounced—like “want.” You don’t know what a useful word it is until you start using it.)

Believe it or not, for the second S.F. trip in a row, I had no major problems with the airlines, at least as far as the actual taking off, flying, and landing went. It was complicated, though, because part of my trip was on U.S. Airways, and the other was on United, and they are now avowed partners but not well coordinated. So the right airline never knew what the left airline was doing. Still, I made it onto all scheduled flights, and the only downside of the “first class” flying experience was that first class is not what it used to be. If you have to turn right as you enter the aircraft, you know you are not headed for the lap of luxury. The laps of luxury are all located on the left side, which none of my aircraft had. It was still better than coach, I’m not complaining, just sayin’.

The worst part was the 4-hour layover in Chicago. With no certainty that the 6 p.m. flight would actually take off (I have witnessed a lifetime’s worth of canceled flights going north), and no place to rest my head, I just sat there in a stupor and kept reminding myself that each minute that passed was taking me closer to home. I hoped I was not trapped in Zeno’s Paradox, which states that if you always go half the distance to your destination you’ll never get there. And I was pretty sure that not going any distance wouldn’t help either.

I arrived in Green Bay after a wildly bouncing flight in and around thunderstorms all up the coast of Wisconsin. You think Wisconsin doesn’t have a coast? Think again. I managed to drive the 50 miles home, kept awake by phone conversations with Terry and Barb. I contend there is nothing better than returning home after a time away… no matter how gratifying the away time was.

Luther and Brutus were wary of me when I walked in the door, reeking of a foreign land, but they quickly recovered, and before long the three of us were sacked out together in my big chair and ottoman. It was as if we had all come back from the vet and could forget about how anxious we had been.

“odd dark beauty”

The painting intensives are challenges that cannot be directly met, because there are no terms, no methods, no way of knowing what will happen or what will be expected of you. This can make it a nerve-wracking experience, especially in antici…

pation, but there’s also a beauty and a simultaneous excitement and silence of the heart as we sit together in a circle and prepare (without preparing) to step into the Unknown. This sounds a bit grandiose, but I assure you, it is factual and real. We come together for just that purpose, but it is daunting. No matter how many intensives you have experienced or how long you have been painting, there is no sure way to do it, the beginner is on a par with the most experienced painter, it’s back to zero all over again. This zero is not empty, the proverbial goose egg; au contraire, as with the real goose, it is filled to bursting with actual and potential life.

Throughout the 7 days, the painting was easy for me. But it was disconcerting to find no words for it on the last day, when we went around the studio to see everyone’s paintings and to hear what each painter had to say about her process. Many people had things going on in their lives that naturally came out in their paintings: a new relationship, a break-up, a pregnancy, a death in the family. Real life, in other words, expressed without forethought but with a direct experience of joy or difficulty. It’s not therapy—where you put a problem into words or pictures and search for a resolution. It’s more a mirror in which you paint what comes and see what is reflected back. Any resolution is a by-product, the real “work” is in staying with yourself, sidestepping judgment and being vulnerable and open to whatever wants to be revealed.

When it was my turn to show my paintings, I had nothing to say. I knew it wouldn’t be useful or interesting to just point to the various images and tell which came first, second, and third. All I could say was “I don’t know why I painted that,” “I don’t remember what I felt painting that.” Me, wordsmith! Lacking an explanation or an insight into my experience. Wondering if I had an experience at all: where was I when all this color and these shapes and images were being applied to the paper?

I cried a lot on that last day—for many reasons, I suspect, but in this case it was frustration at not being able to perform the “task” of talking about my process. Barbara said some kind and encouraging words, not that I remember them, and when I was done she came over and held my hand. I was so moved by that. It was only an hour or so later, when we were saying the final good-byes in the circle, that it hit me. I didn’t have a “story” going on; my life is fairly placid and does not provide much fodder for drama. None of what I painted felt personal, unlike all those times when I have painted my family or other worldly or spiritual relationships or fantasies. What I realized in a blinding flash of insight was that I didn’t know what had happened in my process or even my feelings, because “something” had told me what to paint at every step; “I” was not really involved.

I had brought along an unfinished painting from last December. I had painted myself in the center of the painting, bursting out of my grave below ground. But as I didn’t have the same energy for it now, I went about painting lots of circles and dots and trying this and that. It was satisfying—no thought, just doing. In the top left corner was a blue head that I barely remembered painting, but when Barbara asked me who it was, I said “God.” She asked if there could be anything coming out of or going in anywhere, so I painted white breath coming from the mouth of “God.” Then I was finished and had a blank sheet of paper on the wall in front of me. The new painting came to me in an instant. “God” was blowing his breath on me where I was sitting deep underground. I was in the lotus position, holding a baby. I didn’t know who the baby was, or the black figure I painted on the left, who also had white trails of something coming from her chest. I didn’t place a lot of importance on this painting, I just did whatever felt good: lots of circles, dots, and finally some fish swimming along on the bottom. I had the unoriginal “insight” that I could paint anything. It’s something we know all the time but somehow rediscover at odd moments. It’s as if the brain short-circuits while trying to set some rules, paint the familiar, find a pattern that works and stick with it. Then it gets jolted out of its brain patter (patter is part of the pattern) by a seemingly uninteresting occurrence like painting fish that don’t logically fit with the God’s breath, a baby, or a crevasse.

During a break, I noticed one of the flyers for children’s painting classes that showed a painting of a large fish, along with the little boy who had painted it. I was amused by the anatomical accuracy with which he had painted the fins and other whats-its on the fish’s body, whereas my standard way of painting a fish is to make a sort of infinity symbol, cut off one end to make the tail, and add eyes and a fin on top.

My next painting came to me as quickly and easily as the previous one had. God was on top blowing breath down on me, but this time the crevasse was in the ocean and I was being burned on a cross, with fagots (kindling) stacked beneath it. I was separated from the water on both sides by a barrier, which was in danger of being breached on the right by a large yellow fish that was about to devour 3 smaller fish; it had teeth and a tongue, lots of holes on its sides, jaggedy scales, slanted eyes, and a sharkish fin.

After we stopped for the day, a mother and her son happened to come by to pick up the little boy’s paintings from a previous class. Barbara delightedly introduced me to the boy who had painted the fish I had seen on the flyer. I asked him if he had a fish at home, thinking that was how he knew what fish actually looked like, but he said no. Barbara had joked that she brought in a fish in a bowl for the kids to paint, like life nude drawing except the nude was a fish. (This was funnier than I’m making it sound.)

The boy was 7 years old, well mannered and soft spoken. He walked into the studio proper where he looked around at the large colorful paintings on the walls and breathed, “These are actually rather amazing.” Barbara told him about my noticing the fish he had painted, so I brought him over to my painting. At this point the painting consisted of “God,” me burning on the cross, and the big yellow fish about to devour the little fish. Some of the images we paint are not suitable for children to view, but this seemed OK. In the meantime, a few of us chatted with the mother. As they were going out the door with his paintings, the little boy looked at me and said, “Your fish is cooler than my fish,” and I said, “No it isn’t!” though I was of course pleased as punch to hear that high praise. Afterward, someone told me that when we were talking to his mother he had gone back to my painting and studied it for a long time… I don’t know to what end.


The next day I continued to paint with no hesitation; everything was obvious, from the “fabric of the universe” (which Diane L calls “plaid”) to underwater circles and sea plants and a couple of lizard beings who were presumably trying to break the barrier to get at me like the big fish on the other side. A round fish with protruding extremities (that looked like snakes) appeared, also.

Needless to say (?), there was no apparent correspondence between what I was painting and anything in my life. But being open to any shape, color, or image that wants to appear makes it ridiculously easy to paint, because you’re not trying to force it or make sense of it. The correspondence is with your feeling, a deep, undemanding sense of rightness—no ambition to make a beautiful product, no censorship of images, no need for interpretation.

During a group sharing, Martha said that she appreciated “beauty”—which puzzled me until she amended that to say, “odd dark beauty,” and that phrase has resonated with me ever since. The beauty of our paintings and our interactions with one another is not a matter of artifice but of a deep, rich truthfulness and grace. It’s the essence of going beneath the surface to find what is truly beautiful no matter how odd-looking or dark-seeming. We are not in the business of painting calming landscapes or, in our interactions, of saying only the polite, meaningless thing. The atmosphere is so truthful that it throbs in silence but can erupt into laughter (or tears) in an instant.

if x = G + U, where G = God and U = Unknown, then solve for x

Obviously, I can’t tell you anything about the “Unknown.” It’s just a word we use, like “x” or “God”—though you can put “x” into an equation, and most of the time you can solve it. But the Unknown is real, like dark matter, the dark side of the moon, like odd, dark beauty, so I’m just going to riff here about what has come to me as I paint and disappear into that Unknown.

The Unknown is a strange place—though not a “place,” of course. And it’s not empty, not by a long shot. In it, you lose yourself, but not really. Your everyday mind still functions perfectly, but it’s not in charge; at most, it’s the copilot… like if you have to wash a brush or blow your nose or eat an apple. But actually, that everyday mind/traffic controller is way in the back of the “plane” (of existence!)—maybe the lowest-ranking flight attendant, maybe a secret air marshal or the last customer to buy a ticket who has to sit in the very last seat.

When you are painting in a state that we call “the Unknown,” “something” (another vague word that stands for something very real; oh dear, the semantics of this is just impossible)—“something” tells you everything you need to know and nothing you don’t. And we say we want this: the ease of painting “whatever” with no sense of confusion or trying to think (but not think) of the next image. Because the Unknown is not the same as drawing a blank or not knowing what to do. It’s not uncertainty, but it’s not certain, either. It’s not at all like traveling on a dark road in a strange land. It’s a source, and a resource.

And yet, we fear it, or the idea of it. Why is that? It can be daunting and even painful when you want to get from here to there. It feels like you would be free if not for that stubborn mind of yours, struggling for control with the big bad Unknown. But you can’t get there from here. You can’t will it, control it, wish it near, or wish it away.

“Sometimes it feels like light, sometimes like bone,” said Kate about one of the images on her painting. The oddness of that, the apparent contradiction, struck me. We don’t know what we’re dealing with when we paint. But it’s a reality like no other.


As the painting has been coming more easily, so have my interactions with other people. As a group, we’ve been finding that painting is not the end-all and be-all; it’s just as important to learn how to relate with others in the same way, from intuition and compassion to (though it sounds contradictory) risk-taking. I had meaningful interactions with nearly everyone in the group. And I cared about them for who they are, not from any “criteria.” In other words, I wasn’t judging them: They just all seemed beautiful in themselves. This sounds like a cliché. So shoot me. It’s a radically different way of seeing people.

There were also social times galore. Diane L, Diane D, Terry, and I had lunch just about every day, and a few dinners. On the first night, we invited Kyle, a new painter whose 25th birthday it was, to join us for drinks at the Clement St. Bar & Grill. We decided to have dinner, too, so we ate in the bar. We had a rollicking good time. Kyle seemed comfortable with us despite our advanced ages, and Diane D was on fire like I’ve never seen her before, very funny and relaxed. We rocked the house. Again with the clichés.

Our foursome spent most of our lunch breaks at Chloe’s, our traditional haven. We were waiting outside for a table one day when one of the waitresses came out, saw me, and said excitedly, “We have carrot cake today!” I couldn’t believe she remembered me—from December! I guess I had made kind of a big deal about their running out of carrot cake several days in a row. So I got carrot cake for dessert… couldn’t let her down, you know. The next day we went back, and I didn’t order carrot cake. But when we finished our lunch, the waitress came out with a bag for me: carrot cake! “On the house.” I was floored. Of course I thanked her profusely, and when I opened the bag and saw the smiley face she had drawn on the box, I was really touched. It was an amazing feeling to have been remembered, and rewarded, for something that would never have occurred to me. Truly, we don’t know the effect we have on people.

T and I eschewed the Laurel Inn this time for a “vacation condo” high above the studio on Miguel St. It was much cheaper than the hotel, had free parking and a view of the city, lots of light, a kitchen, and 2 bedrooms. We came to enjoy it very much but were struck by how uncomfortable all the furniture was. The main selling point of the condo was the view; why would you care about your sore back? I ended up borrowing an air bed from Diane L, which helped a lot.

We still had to drive down to the studio, because even though it was close as the crow flies, I could barely walk a block, let alone attempt a hill. I had a cane with me, but every physical move during the week was an effort. I couldn’t stand for long, could only walk a short distance, and had to take regular breaks.

One night, after eating at El Toreador in West Portal, T and I decided to see the movie playing across the street: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It was really fun. Afterward we stopped in at a nearby bookstore. I get almost all my books from, having no real alternative, but I like to browse in a bookstore when I get a chance. When I brought a poetry book to the counter to pay for it, the bookseller, a handsome young fellow, started quizzing me about my favorite poets. At first I drew a blank, but finally I thought of Kay Ryan. Then Bob Hicok, Philip Schultz, Sandra McPherson. The guy recommended several books to me, and even had me read some poems. I ended up buying A Journey with Two Maps (Becoming a Woman Poet), by Eavan Boland, and Beautiful & Pointless (A Guide to Modern Poetry), by David Orr.

In the bookstore there was a dapper-looking man, perhaps in his 40s, who approached me and asked about my cane. He admired it, said he had been looking for one like it for a long time. I was surprised, because it’s the most rudimentary sort of cane, wood with a curved handle, that was my father’s in the 1950s. The man pointed out that it was too short for me. Well, I wanted to say, what would you have me do? We had quite an extended conversation about canes and the need for them. He had bought his cane at Walgreen’s and they just don’t make ‘em like they used to. I was pleased with the encounter. I felt like a flower that could open at a touch of the sun but could close up again if need be. What a lovely and useful ability.

It was a week of chance encounters, silly and serious conversations, and quite a bit of singing. For some reason, everything reminded me of a song. We turned onto Chenery St. one day, and I knew there was a song in the name. I kept saying “Chenery, Chenery. Is there a song called Chenery?” After a few hours it came to me: “Henery, Henery, Henery the 8th I am, I am, Henery the 8th I am.” So at every chance I got, I sang, “Chenery, Chenery, Chenery the 8th I am, I am, Chenery the 8th I am.” I’m sure this did not get on Terry’s nerves one bit. She’s a real trouper.

As I said, the last day of the intensive was emotional for me, I wasn’t even sure why. I was disappointed by my “process” talk, and afterward we played a song I had suggested to Barbara: “It Is Well with My Soul,” a hymn by the River City Singers. It’s a beautiful song that made me cry, but also the group was starting to feel scattered, like everyone was too tired to truly get into anything. Saying good-bye is always difficult, it’s kind of a madhouse with the cleaners finishing up and everyone getting their paintings and other belongings together. I didn’t get to say good-bye to everyone, and at a certain point I just wanted to get out of there. Diane L and Diane D had suggested going for a drink after, but I was in “gotta get home” mode, and the condo had by then become the quintessential home away from home.

But then T and I were walking to our rental car when we ran into Diane D. She had been looking for us and greeted us with a big grin. I was persuaded to go out after all, so the three of us went to the Bliss Bar on 24th St. It was very dark and had cozy seating arrangements where you could be by yourselves. After a while, though, the noise from the other patrons became too much to bear. We were hungry by then so walked down the street to Pomodoro. It’s a restaurant that has improved greatly since the days back in the ‘90s (?) when it first opened: I had a delicious pasta with chicken and broccoli. The three of us had our closure, grateful for the chance to talk about the day and the week with good friends. Nothing beats that, I tell you what.

This has been a disjointed account, but when is it ever jointed?

I’ll leave you with one last bit of wisdom, which I read off a clock in the salon where I get my hair cut: “Life’s moments make the best memories.”

May your life be full of them.

(Special thanks to Terry and Barbara, whose generosity made it possible for me to attend the intensive. And shoutout to Sima and Josie, may you both be well.)

Mary McKenney

mary’zine #53: January 2012

January 8, 2012

Masquerading as a normal person day after day is exhausting. —Unknown

The above saying came to me by way of Diane D, who gave me an elegant magnetic notepad with that quote and a funny old-timey picture on it. We laughed at how hilariously appropriate it was.

I suppose it’s possible to masquerade as someone you’re not at the CCE Painting Studio in San Francisco, but mostly, the acute self-knowledge—or at least self-seeing, self-experiencing—that comes along with the brush strokes, vivid paint colors, and previously unimaginable imagery reveal you for who you are, to yourself and to others. It’s a gift, but there’s also a price to pay: your most fondly held beliefs may be challenged, your own hypocrisy, bad social skills and defensive postures can be highlighted. But the upside to revealing the difficult parts of the self are the deep love and compassion that can also come—the realization, on a level below that of ordinary thought, that we are all human, deeply flawed, but/and lovable. It’s one thing to face the white paper and expose our ids and egos to whatever may appear from the collective or personal unconscious, but it can be more difficult to do the same with one another in the group or, indeed, one on one. One woman’s worst, most humbling day can be another’s best, most compassionate day. And that can all be reversed in a minute or overnight: no one has a monopoly on self-judgment, or the judgment of others: or grace, or simple gratitude. Somehow the painting process breaks down our defenses, our belief about our own specialness, our habit of competing with others or judging them to make ourselves feel superior, or at least normal. We all recognize ourselves in one another, making identification and thus compassion the only reasonable response. It’s not a painless process, obviously. Feelings can get hurt, misunderstandings can arise. But it’s strange how having even a minor conflict with someone can open the doors (the eyes) to a new way to see that person. It’s an odd way to bond. There’s also, obviously, the usual case of being drawn to one another through the common understanding of what lies in the human heart. In the outside world, as I said one day in the group, “Fear is King.” But in the studio, in the process, the secret is: “We are one.”

I had been freaked out about flying back to San Francisco for the December ’11 painting intensive ever since, well, the December ‘10 painting intensive, which ended in my being stuck at the Chicago O’Hare Hilton for 3 days during a massive snowstorm. (You can read about it in mary’zine #48, January 2011.) One of the worst parts, besides the unexpected extended stay, was the excruciating symptoms of restless leg syndrome I suffered throughout both cross-country flights. I had since gotten a prescription for a drug that helped to alleviate those symptoms, but I didn’t know how it would interact with the Dramamine I have to take to fly.

I had decided, quite definitively, not to go this year, but finally bowed to the inevitable. At my age, I feel I should make the effort as long as I’m physically able to do so, despite the huge expense for a first class ticket (“I just can’t do coach anymore,” I announced, like the 1%’er I most assuredly am not), 9 nights in a hotel, and myriad other costs.

The intensive turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever been to, and there were no problems with the flights. I repeat: there were no problems with the flights. I only got tsuris from one TSA at SFO, because I had forgotten to take the bottle of water out of my bag. This was at 5 a.m., after I had gotten up at 2:00 to be sure to make my 6 a.m. flight. Mr. TSA took me to a separate contraband/confrontation area to read me the riot act about how I’d have to “surrender the water” or be “escorted out.” From his stern demeanor, I could have been smuggling hashish. I asked if I could take a pill before surrendering—I get anxious about taking my Dramamine in plenty of time before a flight, so I try to have water on me at all times—but no, I had to have taken it in the pre-security area. I would have loved to hear his reasoning for what tragic consequences would result from my swallowing a pill 10 feet one way or the other, but he wasn’t about to discuss it with me. I’m sure the TSA is chomping at the bit to emulate the sudden rise in status (and matériel) of the campus police state (UC-Davis). How humiliating it must be to have absolute power in their little sphere but no weapons to back it up. I wanted to mouth off, but of course I surrendered. I have a lifelong problem with authority, but in my advanced years I have learned, like John Mellencamp, that “I fight authority, Authority always wins.” Also, thanks to the world-wide-webs, I have learned that “Scorpios are ruled by Pluto, so there are bound to be power struggles with unreasonable authority figures,” an explanation that is as good as any, I suppose.

I was going to tell my story in reverse order, like in the movie Memento, but that sounds like a lot of work, so I’ll just go back more or less to the beginning.

Change is a bitch. Where others seem to have an insatiable desire for the new, I strive to repeat experience as much as possible. When I take the huge leap of faith that is entailed in traveling, I attempt to replicate the known by using the same airline, same flights, same rental car, same hotel, and so on. This works out about as often as you might expect, which is to say not often, because the world keeps changing—adding, subtracting, and probably doing a bit of calculus on things I’ve come to rely on.

Terry and I stayed at the Laurel Inn, as we always do, and practically the first thing we discovered upon checking in was that they no longer provide the continental breakfast we used to enjoy before setting off for a day of painting. It bummed us out to the point of thinking we would have to find a different hotel in the future because this was simply not acceptable! It finally occurred to us that we could buy our own eggs, English muffins, and orange juice, and we had even tastier breakfasts on our own. (We both had kitchenette rooms, a must for boiling eggs and refrigerating leftovers. Hopefully, they will not eliminate that necessity/luxury.)

At the studio, we found our expectations beautifully met: same bright painting space, same great friends—old (30+ years) and “new” (<10 years)—same beaming Barbara welcoming us to another 7 days of intense inquiry.

my friend and teacher, Barbara (beautiful subject; blurry photographer)

However, we soon learned that changes were afoot there as well. There would be a different schedule: starting half an hour earlier in the morning, and cutting the lunch hour from 2 to 1.5 hours. We would then stop half an hour earlier at the end of the day and have long, glorious evenings to do as we pleased. I wasn’t happy about this, because I preferred to spend my free time (a) sleeping longer and (b) luxuriating in a long enough mid-day break that I could have a leisurely lunch with my friends and then investigate various chocolate shops, bookstores, or other attractions, maybe even have a nap in the car.

Barbara said she also wanted to experiment with bringing in music to the group and changing the final sharing on day 7 from each person’s recitation of gratitude and awe to a “love offering” given in any form we wished: a poem, a painting, a story. Both those things—the music and what sounded like “show-and-tell”—rocked me to my core. Painting had always been the sole focus of the studio, the raison d’être, the ne plus ultra, the sui generis, I think you get my point.

But at first it all seemed kind of abstract, a remote possibility, except for the schedule changes. Nothing else was written in stone, and Barbara was not one to write in stone anyway.

On day 1, Barbara read us this beautiful poem. It felt almost scarily relevant, not an abstraction or sentimental in any way, just solid, earned knowledge of the heart.

For a New Beginning

by John O’Donohue (1956–2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was blessed to have a wonderful, easy week of painting. It just flowed. But at the end of one especially good day—no conflicts, no doubts, no intense huddling with Barbara over how I could possibly get out of the corner I had painted myself into—suddenly, music filled the air. It was a beautiful song that I don’t know the name of and that I wasn’t remotely willing to enjoy. It was like Painting: The Musical. I was angry. It felt like a violation, an imposition. An unwanted change.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am going to fully disclose my own reactions but will protect the privacy of other painters as much as possible. So I told Barbara that I “voted” not to have music in the studio, at least during the painting hours. What anyone does afterward, whether it’s speaking groups, Byron Katie work, or karaoke, is of no concern to me. And Barbara cheerfully replied that I could stay or go, my choice.

I had been conditioned from years of “pure” process that nothing was needed to “enhance” the painting process. In fact, introducing other forms, such as dance or singing, could be a distraction—or worse, a form of avoidance. So when I heard the music ringing out at the end of the session, I was appalled, and I refused to join the afternoon group sharing.

I felt ridiculous, sitting alone in the painting room, just behind the wall from everyone else, especially because it seemed I was the only one who had a problem with the music. So I hid, indignant, embarrassed, wishing that the studio had a back door. I swear I would have sneaked out and left Terry behind to find a ride back to the hotel. In my wildest fantasy, I thought I might change my ticket, fly back home, and never darken the door of the CCE again. (This is a common fantasy, actually; more than one painter has threatened to quit forever when they’re having a bad day.)

I know this makes me sound like a prima donna maker of mountains out of molehills, but there you have it. We painters know that strong feelings don’t necessarily come from the trigger—the precipitating comment or event. They are usually reactions to what we’re painting, or memories or feelings that arise from it, or from other people in the group. But in the grip of those feelings, I don’t always know what the true source is, and I’ve long since lost the ability to just stay quiet about whatever’s bothering me, if indeed I ever had it.

Also, we’ve all felt alienated from the group at various times: when everyone else seems to be having an easy time painting or is feeling blessed and happy, and we think we’re the only one feeling out of sorts, annoyed, or bored. It helps everyone when this is brought out, because painting (and, by extension, sharing) is about being how we feel in the moment, not about achieving some ideal state.

So the sharing began, and after a while Barbara asked if anyone knew where I was. She wanted to reconsider her response to me, because she felt she had reacted defensively. She “invited” me to come in and join them. “It’s not the same without Mary in the group.” So I went in and sat in the back and cried some and tried to explain what was going on with me, that it felt like an imposition to have music played in the studio and to have no choice about it. What I love about Barbara is that she is open to being questioned and is willing to reveal her own vulnerability. I felt much better having the opportunity to talk about my feelings. Her willingness to hear me out made all the difference.

But I felt sensitive afterward, because I was afraid that I would forever be associated, even as a joke, with “hating music.” The day after the incident, someone joked about the group singing “Kumbaya,” and she looked right at me. I coldly asked her why she was looking at me. (Geez! I can be such a jerk!) She later shared in the group that she had said something that was met with a defensive attitude, so I, center of the universe, took her aside afterward and apologized. Lo and behold, she had been talking about her husband! I told her why I had reacted that way and she apologized for being “insensitive,” though of course she wasn’t at all. We hugged, and I felt so much closer to her afterward. There’s something about telling the truth, exposing oneself, that can turn a misunderstanding into a real connection.

Also, I had completely forgotten that I had told Barbara earlier in the week that I wanted to learn to stop taking everything so personally. “Be afraid of what you ask for” has never seemed so true.

Oh dear, I just remembered I had another meltdown a couple days later, but I don’t think I’ll go into it. Too complicated, involved other people, made me feel like a jackass again…. But it was resolved, and I felt even closer to Barbara. We’ve never been afraid to sit together, look into each other’s eyes, open our hearts, and let the truth pour out. No defenses. A blessing I cannot overstate.

One of the poems read in the group that week was “Allow,” by Danna Faulds. A line that resonates with me is: “practice becomes simply bearing the truth.” I experience “bearing the truth” (a fear, a self-judgment, a humiliation) as feeling like a nut or a knot (or a pit) in the pit of my stomach that I can’t ignore or rationalize away. The nut-ness, though not a pleasant feeling, is actually the good news. If I can’t contain it / bear it, the fear or humiliation just washes over me and I react blindly, defensively. Feeling the nut (I should find a more genteel way of saying that) is like M. Cassou’s “when you paint the wall, the wall comes down.” The nut feels like it is lodged there forever, never to be digested or dissolved. But when we look at / bear (and paint) “it all,” it all takes on its true proportions. Only then can we truly feel our own humanity and thus the humanity of others.

The painting was intense all week. Barbara would come around occasionally, mainly just to make contact. I would look at her and smile with a demented energy that could hardly be explained by the circles and lines and dots I was applying to the paper. The process happens in the person, not on the painting.

I had never before painted dead people doing anything other than being dead. Sure, I’ve painted my share of bodies in graves, in caskets, hanging from crosses, divided into body parts—who hasn’t??—but one day I left an area at the bottom of my painting to wait and see what “wanted” to be there. I didn’t have much hope that anything new and mysterious would come, because you can’t make it happen and you can’t predict it. But when I finally got to that white part and started to paint a casket with my body in it (ho-hum), I was amazed to see something completely new: My head was in the regular place, but one arm was flopped over the side! Then the opposite leg went over the other side! It was a revelation! I painted crosses lying crookedly on the ground along with discarded flowers, as if they had been flung off the casket. It felt awesome. What would become of me, rising from my death like that? In the next painting, I started with the hole (the grave), and painted myself big, standing up with my arms spread wide. I put nail marks and blood in my palms, I don’t know why—don’t exactly see myself as the risen Christ, but the things you paint often passeth understanding. When I shared in the group later that my body on that painting didn’t have feet “because they cut them off, or so I’ve heard,” this was greeted by a collective gasp, and I quickly backed off—“Never mind, I probably made that part up!” (From “The Saxons of early England cut off the feet of their dead so the corpse would be unable to walk. Some aborigine tribes took the even more extreme step of cutting off the head of the dead, thinking this would leave the spirit too busy searching for his head to worry about the living.” Good thinking, ancients! I’m so glad we’re using one of your books of wisdom—The Bible—as a guide to living in the 21st century!) Then I painted the dirt underground, the grass and flowers above, and the cross at the head of the grave toppling over. I then proceeded to paint a million dots and circles, very satisfying.

It amazes me that I can get right back into the process after not painting on my own all year. Is that proof that time does not exist? On a certain level, emotions don’t matter, time is never lost, there’s just The One Moment of honest exposure of yourself in color and form on the white paper. Here’s a mysterious but possible explanation (that I wish I understood better):

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



Other highlights and lowlights

  • On the night before the intensive started, Diane L had a showing of her paintings in a beautiful, spacious home on Potrero Hill. She glowed with excitement among her many friends and colleagues who had come to see her work. I felt so happy for her. This was definitely a highlight… except for the challenge of driving through an unfamiliar area of San Francisco during rush hour on a Friday night.
  • One morning, an old woman appeared outside the door of the studio, her hands and face pressed against the glass, peering inside. She opened the door and announced, “My name is Michelle, and also Michael.” I thought, Here we go. “You know that if you kill people, God will forgive you.” The narrative quickly devolved into sentence fragments: “… something in her belly… the family…,” and finally she said, “I’ll be right back.” And she left.
  • On the same day, after lunch at Chloe’s with Diane, Diane, and Terry, I was hobbling across the road with my cane, my friends several yards ahead of me, when a man stopped his car at the stop sign, let my friends pass, and then started revving the car and jerking it forward, impatient at having to wait for me. I stood in front of his car and yelled, “What’s your problem?” I couldn’t see the man’s face clearly, but I was lucky he wasn’t looking to kill a pedestrian that day. After that, Terry made sure to hang back with me when we were out. Not that it would have helped much if we had both been run over by a maniac, but it was sweet of her. Throughout the week, I drove the rental car and she was my lookout (as in “Look out!”), and I’m sure she prevented several needless injuries to bicyclists and pedestrians who rode or strode through the black night in dark clothes. (At least the bicyclists twinkled.)
  • We all sort of forgot about the strange woman at the door, but in the afternoon sharing Karine mentioned her again—she had been thinking about her and was still kind of apprehensive. In my favorite line of the week, she summed up the woman’s message: “It’s OK to kill people. I’ll be right back.” We all laughed, and thus a lowlight turned into a highlight. And God didn’t have to forgive anyone.
  • I want to reiterate the great fun I had with my close friends, and the tenderness I felt for everyone in the group. Besides our tightly scheduled lunches, Diane, Diane, Terry, and I had dinner one night at the beautiful, Christmasy/sparkly Buckeye Roadhouse in Marin. On the last night, several of us gathered for one last time at the Clement St. Bar & Grill. On several nights after painting all day, many of us stayed past the official closing hour and shared laughs or long, full silences, a blessing either way. Throughout the week I had intimate, meaningful interactions with… again, just about everyone. Special shout-outs to Martha, Carol, and Kate. It was truly a special week, and one I would have missed if I had chosen to follow my fears instead of my heart.

I had dreaded the final sharing (“love offering”) on day 7 and had just about decided not to do anything for it (we had a choice). But that afternoon I quickly prepared something and was glad I did. It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had at the studio. Everyone brought something very personal—from stories and pictures of mothers and grandparents who had died, to Alyssa playing her guitar and singing a beautiful song she had written, to the sharing of paintings that had been done during the week, Liat telling us about her beloved dog, Kate leading us in singing a round of an old folk song, and several beautiful poems and reminiscences. I felt tenderized and tender and cried practically nonstop. Everyone’s offering was so moving. There’s an old story about how the world rests on the back of a turtle; when someone asked what held up the turtle, the storyteller replied, “Turtles all the way down.” For me, this sharing felt like love all the way down.

Linda H, the only brand-spanking-new painter, who, coincidentally (?), was the one who provided the music over which I had freaked out earlier in the week, played a recording of Johnny Cash singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with his daughter Rosalind, from an album he recorded just before he died. I cried so hard during the song that I felt I had to explain afterward… he had been my father’s favorite singer, and my father had played his songs on the accordion. The tears and memories and tragedy of my father’s life washed over me as I listened. It was a special gift, and when I asked Linda later if that “made up” for my protest over the music earlier in the week, she said simply, “It’s forgotten.”

At first I was concerned that my “love offering” wasn’t in sync with the rest, but I went with it—first showed and talked about my death paintings, then did what I called an “infomercial” about the mary’zine, with information about how to read it online or subscribe. Later, a few people gave me money for the privilege of receiving paper copies, which I painstakingly print out at home so I can include the color photos.

All week, my eyes were opened to the beauty of ordinary people on the streets, in stores, in restaurants. I found myself intently observing everyone around me, marveling at their humanity, our commonality. One night at an Italian restaurant near our hotel, I was so focused on other people that Terry asked, “Have we said everything?” No… but there was so much to look at, to overhear, to speculate about: young, permissive parents trying to bargain with their tantrum-throwing child; a large party of friends or family who individually left and returned, changed seats, you couldn’t tell which children went with which adult, like they were one moving, changing organism; a waiter with ready-made jokes that were often incomprehensible (holding out two identical glasses of wine: “Pick one.”). Everywhere we went that week, we remarked on how everyone was so nice (with the obvious exceptions of the God-forgiven murder fan at the door and the impatient man behind the wheel). One day at the hotel, waiting for the slowest elevator in the world, I noticed a doorknob sign that didn’t look like the usual zzzzz or please clean room. I couldn’t see the words clearly, but I thought it said Everything is fine. Hmm. But on closer inspection, it actually said, Housekeeping in room. I felt like I was looking at the world with new eyes. What if all it took to “change the world” was to change one’s way of looking at it? Perception could be everything.

The officious TSA at SFO notwithstanding, my trip home was a breeze. At the Chicago airport, I had plenty of time to get to the other side of forever (O’Hare: The Nightmare) where the small plane would fly me northward. Being whisked over to concourse F in a wheelchair is fine, but I prefer the large multi-seat cart that makes me feel privileged rather than infirm. The driver was a young Pakistani man who proclaimed his love for America (“no discrimination!” “jobs!” “free speech!”). At one point, another Pakistani got on and rode with us for a while so he could bond with the driver over the tragedy of their homeland (partition of India). He was either a traveler who happened to be walking nearby, or a plant put there to advertise diversity, as if I were a bit player in an infomercial for Freedom. (I’m not being cynical, just fanciful.)

In the waiting area for my blessedly short flight to Green Bay, I observed a mentally disturbed woman and her grown son who were sitting near me. The son was patient but clearly stressed about dealing with her. She got up at one point and stumbled over her bag, falling facedown and setting in motion a parade of United Airlines representatives to ask how she was, perhaps to forestall a lawsuit. I hadn’t exchanged words or even a glance with the son, but when he went to gather his things, he mistakenly started to go for my book, coat, and messenger bag; in one of those sweet encounters with strangers that could easily have been unpleasant, we both laughed at his error. It wasn’t a big deal, but it made me wonder if World Peace could start at home, as it were, in the smallest exchanges between people with no chip on their shoulder and no axe to bear.

It was a relief to land at the Green Bay airport, claim my luggage, and plod over the vast tundra of the parking lot to my Jeep. The sky was gray and leaden, but it had never looked so beautiful to me: I had made it through 10 days of Unknown! I somehow managed not to fall asleep on the 50-mile drive home, having taken the various travel downer pills. (The lorazepam worked!)

The cats were confused by my arrival—Luther even hissed at me—probably because I and all my things smelled like California. I would rather be greeted by cries of ecstasy, but oh well. Hauling my suitcase into the bedroom, I noticed a wine bottle… black, with hundreds of white dots painted on it, some surrounding large circles that remained black. It was quite synchronicitous, because I had been conscious of painting dots and circles all week. Clearly, it was a gift from my sister Barb, who had been tending to my cats. I saw her the next night to catch up on the episodes of “Homeland” and “Dexter” that I had missed, and she gave me a black ring display hand (I have a thing for those), that she had spent all day painting white dots with large circles of black on to match the wine bottle. I was blown away. She said to me once that I was the artist in the family and she was the craftsperson. But she had shown true artistry and love in giving me these gifts.

Happy winter!

Mary McKenney

mary’zine #51: September 2011

September 17, 2011

ode to Michigan

Henes Park, Menominee (photo by P. DuPont)





by Bob Hicok

I remember Michigan fondly as the place I go

to be in Michigan. The right hand of America

waving from maps or the left

pressing into clay a mold to take home

from kindergarten to Mother. I lived in Michigan

forty-three years. The state bird

is a chained factory gate. The state flower

is Lake Superior, which sounds egotistical

though it is merely cold and deep as truth.

A Midwesterner can use the word “truth,”

can sincerely use the word “sincere.”

In truth the Midwest is not mid or west.

When I go back to Michigan I drive through Ohio.

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

goes corn corn corn mosque, I wave at Islam,

which we’re not getting along with

on account of the Towers as I pass.

Then Ohio goes corn corn corn

billboard, goodbye, Islam. You never forget

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

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

The Upper Peninsula is a spare state

in case Michigan goes flat. I live now

in Virginia, which has no backup plan

but is named the same as my mother,

I live in my mother again, which is creepy

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

suddenly there’s a pouch like marsupials

are needed. The state joy is spring.

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

is how we might sound were we Egyptian in April,

when February hasn’t ended. February

is thirteen months long in Michigan.

We are a people who by February

want to kill the sky for being so gray

and angry at us. “What did we do?”

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

when we’re all tumblers, gymnastics

is everywhere, and daffodils are asked

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

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

In this way I have given you a primer.

Let us all be from somewhere.

Let us tell each other everything we can.

(Reprinted with permission of the author)




Friday night light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




inhabiting my life

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

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

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

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


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




(illustration by Souther Salazar)




the scariest F word (Future)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nude Niagara Falls, 1969





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Mary McKenney

mary’zine #48: January 2011

January 4, 2011

to San Francisco and partway back

[Guide to my itinerary: Menominee to Green Bay by car, G.B. to Chicago O’Hare by puddlejumper, Chicago to San Francisco by 747, 1 day of lounging and 7 days of painting, then S.F. to Chicago again, and for the rest you’ll have to read on.]

I can’t claim there were no humorous moments on my United Airlines flights last month, but the only one I can recall is when the pilot coming into Chicago on my way home turned off the seatbelt sign at the gate and announced over the PA, “All rise.” Pretty funny. But anything would have made me smile at that point, because I had only a short hop to Green Bay and an hour-long drive ahead of me and then I’d be home! My travel nightmare was almost over.

Or was it…?

I had arranged to get a wheelchair at O’Hare to ferry me between terminals, because the one for the big plane is far, far away from the one for the little plane, even though they’re both United. I was so happy to be going home that I gave the wheelchair pusher a $20 tip. “Merry Christmas!” I cried, in the spirit of the season. But I spoke too soon. One minute before we were set to board, they canceled the flight. How I love those empty apologies: “Sorry for any inconvenience.” They have to put that “any” in there, in case someone experienced no inconvenience whatsoever. Sure, they were justified in blaming the weather this time—it was right at the beginning of the Great Winter Storm of 2010, before winter had even officially started!, and Chicago was at the leading edge—but United is no more reliable when the skies are clear and flocks of angels are ready to guide the plane safely onward. Last year, during a 6-hour delay in the same airport, the gate agent announced that “It’s not our fault.” So she didn’t even have to offer the empty apology. I’ve never known an organization so hostile to its paying customers.

So I was stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again. Without my luggage.

Do I sound bitter? I was pretty… pretty… pretty… bitter. But I should explain why I was in that situation. I flew out to San Francisco for the annual December 7-day painting intensive at the Painting Studio ( Flying is always a dicey proposition for me, partly because of the Dramamine I have to take, which knocks me out, but it was worse this year because my knees have been killing me, and I was really concerned about sitting in coach for hours and trying to navigate not only the airports but the streets of the City. So when I was making my reservations online, a window came up that offered me a one-time-only opportunity to upgrade to First Class. Wow, First Class! I felt daring, out of my league. Not only was I the first person in my family to go to college, but here I was the first one to fly in the company of rich people, or at least men wearing suits! It was going to be the experience of a lifetime!

So on December 2, I drove from Menominee to the Green Bay airport and left my Jeep in long-term parking. I know the airport and I know the security drill, and the TSA people there are perfectly nice because—what do they have to worry about? We got to O’Hare on time, no problem, and when I boarded the 747 to S.F. I almost gasped: I had this large, open, curved cubicle all to myself. I could sit down and stretch my legs all the way forward without hitting anything. There were built-in trays, and shelves on which to stash your bag, none of that “under the seat in front of you,” because there is no “seat in front of you”! The seat itself was very comfortable and had more positions than the Kama Sutra. I never quite got the hang of turning it into a bed, but that was OK. Before we even started taxiing, a parade of flight attendants marched through with beverages, hot nuts (not sure how heat is supposed to improve them), and anything else you could think to ask for. Later, there was spinach lasagna for lunch that wasn’t bad, not bad at all.

Do you sense a “but” coming? Maybe not, but here it is anyway. Almost as soon as we got in the air, I got the horrible restless leg feelings, which I assure you are no joke. I was absolutely miserable, even in that lap of luxury, even knowing it would have been 10 times worse in coach. I writhed and squirmed my way through the whole 4 hours, and even the snacks, lunch, and breathless service didn’t help.

The bigger “but” (don’t say it) came on the way back from S.F. to Chicago. (I’m telling this out of chronological order, try to keep up.) The plane was smaller than a 747, and I was shocked to see that what they called First Class was barely distinguishable from coach. There was a little more leg room and a console between you and your seatmate, but getting up out of the seat and out to the aisle was as awkward as anything I’ve experienced back with the hoi polloi. And I again had the restless legs, made worse by the close proximity of a very nice British man who politely ignored my constant squirming and twice uncomplainingly turned off his movie, put away his laptop, took off his headset, and stood up to let me by to get to the toilet. I had selected an aisle seat online, but they (as is United’s wont) had switched planes, so now I was stuck by the window.

So I’ve already told you about landing in Chicago and finding out that I couldn’t get home that day, which was a Saturday. Fortunately—in a rare moment of thinking ahead and taking action—I had called the Chicago Airport Hilton from my S.F. hotel room to make a reservation, thinking it was worth it for my peace of mind even if I lost the $129 if I didn’t need the room. So at O’Hare I got another wheelchair ride to the hotel, which is theoretically in the airport but still a long, long way from anything that truly qualifies as the airport. I had cash on me but had to stop handing out the exorbitant tips. My room was much nicer (and a lot cheaper) than the one at the Laurel Inn—no offense, Laurel Inn!—so while I was unhappy about the layover, I was grateful to have the resources to afford that option. I ordered room service a couple times (another never-before luxury for me), and the food was damn good and only a leetle overpriced: $31 for a cheeseburger, fries, and Coke, once they added on all their fees and taxes and gratuitous gratuities. I watched mostly regular TV (lots of Weather Channel) but did splurge by purchasing the last two episodes of “Dexter” that I had missed ($6.95 apiece) and the movie “The Town” ($14.95). But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The smartest thing I had done besides reserve a hotel room was to bring my cell phone charger in my carry-on bag. I was getting frequent recorded messages from the airline, which kept me apprised of what was happening (mostly after I already knew, but still). They automatically rebooked me on a flight for the next morning, though I had little hope of flying then because the storm was still looking bad. But I called the recording at 5 a.m. Sunday, and the flight was still scheduled to leave on time. I took all my stuff with me, including my key card in case I had to come back to the room, and set out to find the gate at least 2 hours before departure time. I have a little piece of advice for whoever makes those recordings. When you pronounce “Concourse C” and “Concourse E” exactly the same way, and to my ear I think you’re saying Concourse C when there is no Concourse C in Terminal 2, you are going to cause me a world of hurt. I hobbled off in the direction of the airport with my father’s old wooden cane and couldn’t make heads or tails out of the signs. Also, the “moving” sidewalk that would have eased my progress was not moving. I’m sure the airport was terribly “sorry for any inconvenience,” but it was fortunate for the homeless and/or travel-stranded men I saw sleeping on it. There are at least 3 levels in the airport, reached variously by escalator, elevator, or stairs, and as I followed signs that led nowhere or dumped me back in the same areas I had just covered, I felt a close kinship with Franz Kafka. I expected to metamorphose into an ungeheures Ungeziefer (literally, monstrous vermin) at any moment, if I hadn’t already. But no, I seemed to have all my human appendages. When I finally found the United Airlines counter, it was devoid of human life, and a handwritten sign directed my weary wayward self to Terminal 1, which was supposedly “down this way and to the left.” There was a “this way” but no “left,” and the surly uniformed lass who was sitting there told me I had to “go outside” (she points behind her, which is not where the doors are) or (and?)  “take the train.” I had no idea what she was talking about, where this train was or where it would take me. Mostly, I just needed a wheelchair and some confirmation of where the gate was, so I hobbled downstairs again, looking in vain for Concourse C. The United employees were presumably swilling their morning coffee and cracking jokes in some Shangri-La I had no hope of finding.

So I continued to hobble up and down (I’ll have to find another word for hobble), trying to get my bearings. I finally found a long line waiting to get to Concourse E, and I remembered that my previous flight had been supposed to leave from gate E4. So I joined the line, and the nice man ahead of me said I was in the right place, because the tiny United Express planes leave from Terminal 2, not Terminal 1. Good to know! (I routinely found fellow passengers more helpful than airline or airport staff.)

I think I have adequately expressed how physically miserable I was, but I soldiered on and finally arrived at security. I was on the verge of tears and beyond common courtesy at that point, so instead of smiling politely at the man who checked my ID, I just inched my way forward like the cow or monstrous vermin I truly was. At least they didn’t have those new body scanners, and I didn’t see anyone being patted down, so thank God for small favors. I wobbled down to look at a departures board, only to discover that the flight had been canceled. I have to give myself this: I didn’t completely freak out. I whispered a frustrated “FUCK” and found somewhere to sit down and figure out what to do next.

Naturally, I called the United Airlines recording to see what could be done, and for some reason I wasn’t able to give the required answers in the allotted time. He/it would ask for my Mileage Plus number, and as I started to say “zero…,” he would say, “For example….” or “and then touch the star key.” All communication would break down, because when I finished giving the 11-digit number, he would repeat it back to me with an extra zero, I would say NO, and he would fakily, mechanically apologize, though, I must say, he sounded more sincere than any of the live humans I’d dealt with. I went through this 3 times and finally managed to spit out the requested number to his satisfaction. Then he told me that the wait time to speak to a human was “60 minutes.” FUCK.

(This is hilarious: According to United Airlines, my name is “MARYMS MCKENNEY” [they put the “Ms.” in the wrong place]. So when saying my name, the recording robot pronounces it “Mary Mil-seconds MICKinny.” I’ve always wanted a nickname: how about “Mil-seconds”?)

I found a gate agent who cursorily informed me that all flights for the rest of the day and the next day were sold out. I was now fully in tears—tears for fears. (Did you know that the “Tears For Fears” band name came from the book Primal Scream by Arthur Janov, “tears as a replacement for fears”? In my case, tears just joined the fears, they didn’t replace them). So he reserved a seat for me on an early morning Tuesday flight. It seemed like forever to me. Whoever heard of getting stuck in Chicago for 3 days??

To avoid spending more money on tips, I throbbled back to the hotel—at least I was starting to get my bearings, but I had taken 2 Dramamine already and was seriously fried. From my room I called down to the front desk to see if I could extend my stay by 2 more nights. The person I talked to said she would check and “call [me] right back.” I waited in vain for 2 hours to hear back from her. I spent the time counterproductively worrying that I would be thrown out on the street and have to fend for myself, or sleep on the non-moving sidewalk. For all I knew, the “hundreds” (according to the gate agent) of stranded travelers had filled up the Hilton and all surrounding hotels, and I would have to rent a car and drive into the storm and die in some snow-filled ditch, frozen and clutching my dead cell phone. You see where my mind goes.

I finally called back downstairs and the woman said yes, I could stay 2 more nights. If I could have jumped in the air, I would have. Instead, I fell back on the bed with relief. She called back a minute later to say, “Oh I forgot,” the rate had changed from $129 to $209/night. All the staff have been trained to say “My pleasure” whenever you thank them for anything, but it was a bit odd to be told how much “pleasure” she took in informing me of the outrageous price hike.

Long story even longer: On Monday I took the hotel shuttle over to Terminal 1 to get a boarding pass for my flight the next day. After I did that, I didn’t know how to get back, so I checked the “Visitor’s Information” kiosk to maybe find out the shuttle’s schedule, but guess what? Of 15 or so hotels, the Hilton wasn’t listed! Ha! Was I surprised? Fuck, no! I ended up whrobbling back to my room. I was surprised that the room hadn’t been cleaned yet, so I found the housekeeping person, who told me she had me marked down as checking out that day. I straightened it out with the front desk and went down to the restaurant to have breakfast—some excellent chilaquiles (eggs scrambled with tortilla strips, queso fresco, and salsa). I thought it would be cheaper than room service, but with orange juice and coffee and a tip it still came to $31.

When I got back upstairs, my key card didn’t work. I asked the housekeeping person what to do, and she called security. He showed up finally, interrogated me about my identity, and wondered why a person named “Yvette” had been given my room. After he opened the door for me and checked the bathroom to be sure no one was hiding in there, I called back downstairs. The witless front desk person (not the original one) cheerfully told me that it would be “[his] pleasure” to extend my stay for another night.

I told him to be sure to charge me for 3 nights, not 4. His pleasure. But when I got my Visa bill, I was surprised to see that I had been charged a grand total of $1,069.25. He had indeed put me down for 4 nights. The bastard.

Tuesday a.m., I thrwobble back over to the gate—by this time I know exactly where I’m going, hurrah!—and get in line for security. All the special people—troops, etc.—are allowed to go ahead, so we stand there without moving for half an hour. Finally, they open another line. I go through the motions—dumping shoes, bag, coat, cane, cell phone in the bins—and await deliverance. The TSA performs its ritual of checking the number of ounces of lotion, hair gel, and toothpaste I am carrying and gratuitously tosses my gel. But in her zeal to deprive me of manageable hair, she doesn’t notice the 7-inch metal dental instrument with two sharp hook ends that was wrapped in a paper napkin in the same plastic bag. So I was thwarted from slathering my fellow passengers with hair gel, but I could have done some serious damage with that pick.

We are hunting bin Laden by pawing through my purse, as if I’ve hidden him there, have hidden a wire in my shoe, a liquid in my pocket, a bomb in my underwear. We lost our way in the dark but are looking for it under a lamppost because the light is better there.

Anyway, this plane managed to get off the ground, my luggage was waiting for me at Green Bay, and my Jeep started right up in the bitter cold. The kitties were happy to see me, I think, though they may now prefer my sister, who read to them every day while I was gone. It was heaven to be home.

Brutus (front) and Luther, posing for the cover of their first album, “U.P. Catz.” Photo by P. DuPont.


forget the journey, here’s where I talk about the destination

One of the best things about the painting intensives is seeing old friends again. Diane L., Diane D., Terry and I dined out just about every day in our old haunts, especially Chloe’s, a little café on Church St., and started a couple of new traditions: On Saturday night, T and I met DD, DL, and DL’s man Chris at the Clement St. Bar & Grill. I have a horror of trying to park on the streets of S.F., especially on a Saturday night, but we easily found a spot and joined our friends for a rousing urban outing: pasta, burgers, wine and black Russians, jostling in the aisles, attentive waiters, and shouted conversation. It’s what I miss most about the City, I think. Well, first, having friends available to go out, and then knowing people who know interesting places to go. Later in the week, we headed over to the Buckeye Roadhouse in Marin, in the rain, me driving, trying to remember how to get there. Either they moved the road (unlikely) or I didn’t know where I was going (ya think?), and I ended up having to turn around on Tennessee Valley Road. But then, in a burst of glory, I drove into the parking lot, handed my car over to the valet, and we entered the bright, shiny world of the Buckeye. Drinks (the raspberry lemonade was superb), ahi tuna and spicy pork sandwiches, lots of hoopla, again an urban-style experience made more special by the sparkly decorations and holiday spirit in the air. I love you, D, D, and T.

In the middle of the week, the studio always springs for a pizza lunch, which we eat in the sharing room. This time the pizzas came from an Indian place, which, no thanks, but there was also a really good pepperoni pizza, and Alyssa had made a raw kale salad. I don’t think I have to tell you that I do not eat this kind of thing, so I can’t believe I even took some, but it was great! I even got the recipe from her later. You can find “Chef Alyssa” at She is amazing, and not just for her mad food skillz. She had us in stitches with her story the morning after seeing Roger Waters The Wall Live.

More shout-outs: I was going to name others with whom I had special moments, but that can be tricky because of whom I might leave out, so: You know who you are. I loved painting and being with you all. And I have a special shout-out to Sima, but you’ll have to read on for that.

On Friday night, at the end of the intensive, I went out with my friends from Oregon, who had driven down just to have dinner with me, P’s and my godchild, and the godly child’s husband and mother. It’s always somewhat bizarre to go from the intimacy of the painting studio and my friends there to my “other” world. We went to a noisy Italian restaurant south of Market, and it was both overwhelming and gratifying to banter and catch up with one another. Plus, the food was excellent. Then P&C brought me back to my hotel, and I got a few measly winks before having to get up at 2 a.m. to leave for home (ha!).


It’s easier to write about the obvious targets—the airlines, security, and hotel staff—and the fun times than to put words to the indescribable experience of painting for process, but I will do my best.

“I hear the paint falling…”

Barbara was telling us about someone dropping a container of paint, but I heard poetry. In my world, a lot was falling: rain outside; tears on the paper and on my face inside; mercy, mercy everywhere….

All week I painted a young man who had killed himself after holding a room full of high school students, including my great-nephew, hostage. No one else was hurt, unless you count scarred-for-life. During the stand-off, my fearful thoughts were of course for my great-nephew and his parents, but when I came to paint, suddenly there he was, the 15-year-old boy who couldn’t even say what he wanted, who had no demands, except possibly the demand for attention, to be taken seriously, who knows what goes on in the mind of a teen-age boy? So I painted him with the gun to his head, in the grave, as a spirit rising from the grave. Mind you, I didn’t know him, but his tragedy was the vehicle for 7 intense days of painting.

At first I painted a lot of guns, bullets, blood. The boy (I know his name but don’t want to name him, I don’t know why) was a hunter, as is my great-nephew, so I painted deer as targets, then deer pointing their own guns. Sometimes the imagery becomes so satisfying to paint that you get carried away. I told Barbara I wanted to paint a forest with hunters, deer, mayhem. She got me to focus on the painting in front of me, to see what could be coming in or out. So I connected all the beings on the painting with white cords, felt the connectedness of life whether the ties are visible or not, and still she asked what could be connected. But there was nothing else, just shapes! just colors! I had made the obvious connections, she was asking me to do the impossible. But it turns out that how you face the impossible is kind of the point: Finally, I was neither fighting nor holding back, and though I didn’t think of the word at the time, I had “surrendered.”

At some point a quotation from “The Merchant of Venice” started running through my mind. It was the same quote that came when I painted my late brother-in-law many years ago.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

I painted tears falling from the faces on the painting and from the unknown sky above. I didn’t know where the feelings were coming from, what they “meant,” why I was focusing on this boy. The teacher and the other students had done their best to keep the boy calm, talking to him about hunting and fishing, and then the SWAT team came busting in and it was all over, the boy shot himself. My great-nephew seemed to be OK immediately afterward, and his mother, my niece, was euphoric that he survived, but post-traumatic stress had come, predictable as clockwork.

I was far enough removed from the story that I knew virtually nothing objectively, but my feeling state was a projection of the boy’s loneliness, despair, lack of choices, forced into a corner, thinking the gun and the attention of the other students would tell him what to do now, how to go on, whether to go on.

As happens when you paint so intensely for so long, the story faded away and I just followed the mysterious feelings for the rest of the week, painted whatever came next, not like clockwork but like some organic heartbeat leading me on.


an intruder in our midst

There was one man in the intensive, among 22 or so women; we’ve had them before, it’s not a big deal. But this one seemed different from the gentle souls who had painted with us in the past. On the very first day, someone referred to being (psychologically) “naked” in front of the painting, and he offered that she “had [his] permission.” That was rather jarring, this male insistence on making everything about sex, but no one said anything. He (I’ll call him “Dick”) made a few other comments over the next few days, joked about how he could paint his penis as long as he wanted. I wanted to say to him, “You know, Dick, it’s not about the length, it’s the girth.” But we’re not supposed to comment on other people’s sharings, so I zipped it, no pun intended.

One of the painters had been doing some very sexual paintings, and she talked about feeling exposed, wondering if she was doing the right thing, not wanting anyone to see—questioning what was going on with her, as we all do when the mind is not in charge and imagery seems to have its own power and direction. Sexual imagery can feel very liberating to paint, but it brings all the baggage with it, one’s fantasies and fears, the expectations from the culture. So at one point, “Dick,” who had been painting near her, shared that he had “wanted to watch” and that he could “feel the excitement” from her corner, and he said these things in the group while looking intently at her, a burst of inappropriate, unwelcome testosterone, entitled and insistent, flooding the room. The rest of us, the women, the targets of male entitlement in and out of “safe” places, sat there as if stunned, as if shot with a paralyzing agent, not lethal, not like he put a gun to our heads, but stunned into silence and submission. Barbara reminded the group at large that we were not to comment on one another’s paintings, and apparently the point was not lost on Dick. Afterward, things were said in private, apologies were made, epiphanies may or may not have been achieved, but I wasn’t part of all that. I just felt the reverberations from his statements, his obvious glee and sexual response, and a lifetime of unwelcome comments and advances made me furious that we had to endure this kind of thing in our “sanctuary.” But sanctuary is not necessarily what it seems. The painting studio is a sanctuary in which to feel unsafe, to take risks, to not know what we’re going to feel, let alone say. It’s a contradiction wrapped in an enigma and all that.

When we reconvened for the next morning’s sharing, the women’s voices started to come forward about what had happened. It was unusual to have a “meta” talk like that, and it was disturbing, especially considering the tender feelings that we encounter, in ourselves and in one another, when painting for so long. After a few people had spoken, I realized I was practically quivering with a phrase that had come to me in the night. It seemed that to say it in the group would be like dropping a bomb in the middle of a marketplace, blowing myself up along with everyone else. But it was so strong in my throat to voice it: I said that the aftermath of Dick’s comment the day before had been like “passive little girls being word-raped.” No one seemed to know what I was talking about. What?? Repeat that. Explain that. It’s always strange to put something personal or explosive into words, whereas you can paint literally anything and no one will be shocked.  I was afraid that what I said was too strong, too (God forbid) “feminist” or “man-hating” or any of the other shields that women use to deflect just or unjust criticism of men. Barbara engaged me, encouraged me to see where this was coming from in me, what more I could say, didn’t let me just drop my bomb and disappear. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but after a while I paused and said, “But… I’m having so much compassion for this boy who killed himself, whom I didn’t even know.” And my energy changed from reacting against one man to feeling for another man, and there was no more contradiction, just an appreciation for the complexity of our beings, and for Barbara’s skill in bringing me to a truer place than mere reaction. (Barbara, I am more grateful to you than I can say.)

Here’s my Sima shout-out. I happened to be wearing my “Bitch Is the New Black” t-shirt that day, and after the morning sharing she came over to me and said, “Brave Is the New Bitch.” That was so cool! I had thought of another t-shirt I wanted to make for next year, with a phrase I had seen on a car that morning: “It Don’t Matter to Jesus.” I have since learned that it’s a quote from “The Big Lebowski” (one of my favorite movies, actually), not an illiterate paean to the son of God. But I guess it can mean whatever I want it to mean. “It Don’t Matter to Mary”? The only problem with wearing these t-shirts is having to explain them to people, such as my “Not here today, not gone tomorrow” original. Contact me if you wish to purchase.


One of the things Barbara wanted to explore in the sharings was how to make use of the extraordinary opportunity to relate with one another in the group the way that we paint—not just sharing details of our day or our individual feelings, but to speak in the same spirit that informs our paintings. But while painting, we’re in our own worlds, backs to each other, no one really knowing what’s going on with anyone else unless we overhear them talking with Barbara. And it’s hard to know how to “relate” when we’re not supposed to make judgments or offer advice. We all have a tendency to want to help someone who’s feeling bad, but there’s a freedom in just being able to express ourselves without being bombarded with well-meaning suggestions. Even so, the feeling of connection in the sharings is just incredible: the silence so deep that it vibrates.

We talked a lot about what it meant to be “inappropriate” while speaking in the group. Later in the week, I’m not sure how it came about, I was probably going on about the contradiction of having “rules” in the sharing that we don’t have in the painting. So Barbara invited me to “say something inappropriate.” I had no idea what to say, and I usually freeze when put on the spot like that. But then it popped into my head to ask, “Can I speak to a person?” Barbara hesitated but said OK, and I looked at Dick and said… [I imagined the room holding its collective breath] “I was going to ignore you for the rest of the week, but I got over it and now I know it’s not about you.” Barbara beamed, “That’s good!” She asked Dick how he felt about what I had said and of course he was fine “…since it’s not about me.” I’m not sure if he learned anything from the whole experience, but I learned that if I’m honest about my feelings, I can get past them.

There was another time in the group when I said something that was very difficult to admit to, but I’m not going to go into it here. What I said wasn’t the important part anyway, it was my reaction afterward when I feared the judgment of others and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Back at my painting, Barbara urged me to feel, not think. As soon as someone tells you not to think, your mind thinks even harder: How do I not think, are you crazy? But somehow my defenses had been worn down, I was a soggy mess from crying, and I just kept going back to the wordless feeling whenever I found myself on the Think Train again. I kept painting, it didn’t matter what. And then it happened. It was as if the feelings, so deep, so heart-felt, so powerful and seemingly destructive, eased out and spread out as if on a broad plain, flooding all my defenses and finally dissipating into wordlessness, fearlessness. And then another “falling” quote came to me: “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.” And look, the word “pain” is right in there.


So the week of painting (and traveling) for me was about raining, flooding, cold particles falling, breaking the levees of self-protection, pure feeling rising, emerging with or without words, dissipating in riots of color and shape and image; and it was also the opposite: erecting boundaries, patrolling the perimeter, rifling through my own mental carry-on bags for dangerous implements of self-knowledge, thinking security will save me, in turn resisting and surrendering, tears fighting fears. It’s all related, we’re all connected, the hazards are everywhere, the target is indistinct and constantly moving, clarity is hard to find.

But in the midst of the chaos and the misdirection, our country’s loss of good faith in the pursuit of blind faith, we painters persist, 22 or 23 at a time, in facing the simplest and deepest truths in ourselves, which is to say, in humanity. The effect on our loved ones or distant strangers cannot be measured, but the painting energy goes out into the world and a little more light is shed, not where the lamppost stands but in the darkest corners where we struggle and cry, laugh and love, and live lives of quiet exhilaration.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine #42: January 2010

January 21, 2010

The decade began with Y2K and ended with WTF. —Andy Borowitz

Where has the time gone? I started writing this ‘zine 10 years ago, as the world held its breath in anticipation of the great computer disaster of all time. On December 31 I was partying like it was 1999 (cuz it was) when a client in Austria e-mailed me to say that his midnight had come and gone with no apparent problems. The first crisis of the new century averted (the only one, seems like).

I have mixed feelings about being old(ish). I’m glad I’m not just starting out in life, facing the dearth of jobs and the imminent loss of the polar ice caps (5 years, according to Al Gore). But I would be very curious to see what Earth and the human race will look like in 50 or 100 years. In the New York Times Magazine’s “The 9th Annual Year in Ideas,” I read about “building a forest of artificial carbon-filtering ‘trees’…” and creating “leafy-looking solar panels that could one day replace ivy on buildings.” These “treelike devices… resemble giant fly swatters.” The illustration that accompanies the article looks like a landscape from a video game, and it occurred to me that nature itself might be the ultimate endangered species. If life as we have known it—we lucky old-timers from the first 200,000 years on the planet—is found to be unsustainable, then our future environment could consist exclusively of manmade landforms. When all the wild places are gone, the wild animals will follow. Humans will be so conditioned to living and communicating by means of breathtaking, unimaginable-to-us technologies that what used to be known as “the outside world” or even “the human body” will become quaint memories, like the time before mass transportation. For years we’ve taken for granted eyeglasses and dentures and artificial hearts, but the possibilities of replicating Life in ever more efficient ways must literally be endless.

Most visions of the future are dystopian, all doom(sday) and gloom: Humanity will be reduced to its most crass, selfish tendencies (i.e., the Republicans will win in the end). Computers will inevitably enslave us, like Hal in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But I like to think that the good in people outweighs the bad—and that our future counterparts will still be “painting for process” in 100 years, or, if it has become a lost art, that the paintings and writings we generate now will be found, or intuited, or recreated, simply because the expression of deep feeling in form and color will always be part of the human experience. Recently, the oldest known art rendering of a penis was discovered. And are we still portraying that overdetermined, ambiguous organ in our art works today? You betcha!

snow banks too big to fail

Here comes the [snow] again
Falling on my head like a memory
Falling on my head like a new emotion

Doesn’t it seem like just yesterday that I was regaling you with stories of shoveling, tipping, sliding, and slipping in the great white world of winter? Well, it’s baaaack….

When I returned from the 7-day painting intensive in San Francisco, the world was white, with black tree branches standing out in stark relief against a grayer shade of pale, the sky. My sage green house provided a soothing spot of color.

The birch tree in my back yard, which has three trunks, was bent over three ways, almost to the ground, by the weight of the snow and ice. I had to go out and clear a spot on the ground to sprinkle seeds, nuts, and berries for the birds and other critters. I haven’t been able to plug in the bird bath heater because the outlets on my porch are frozen.

My unemployed nephew had plowed my driveway and front walk (and half the lawn) to a fare-thee-well with his new ATV, so Jim Anderson Knows Best has lost himself a job.


Home never felt so good. The cats gave me a somewhat bemused reception, alternating happy romping with sudden disappearing and then coming closer and sniffing. Finally, Luther curled up in my arms in my big red chair, squirming and kneading and purring and waving his lobster claws at my face and neck, as I downed 2 Aleve and settled in for a long winter’s nap. Brutus was a little more standoffish but finally settled on the ottoman, and the three of us basked in our togetherness-at-last. When I woke up in the dark, I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. Pulled out my trusty cell phone. Ah, it was 5 a.m., so I happily padded downstairs to make coffee.

Now, you’d think that I would have experienced some degree of culture shock when I returned home to the land of trees and snow and unsophisticated kin, but that didn’t happen. In my heart I held both the urban/creative joys I had experienced in S.F. and the down-home ones I returned to in the U.P. I was glad to hear Barb’s voice when I called to let her know I was on my way home from the airport. MP had had knee surgery while I was away, and a complication had sent him back into the hospital (which they have the temerity to call “Bay Area Medical Center”). When we all congregated in his hospital room for a  visit, it felt completely right to be in the company of my sisters and brother-in-law. In fact, I had them all in stitches (though MP already was, haha) describing various aspects of my trip, including feeling embarrassed to have gotten so fat compared to my friends. I said I felt like the Homer Simpson balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and I mimed not being able to buckle my seat belt on the plane—I was going to hold on to the two seatbelt ends like controls on a jetpak and take my chances, but the flight attendant made me attach an extender that would have been sufficient to connect the pilot with the passenger in the last row.

During MP’s hospital incarceration, they had forgotten about their own wedding anniversary, and K said they weren’t going to do anything for Christmas, it’s “just another day.” But since Christmas was on a Friday, when we usually get together anyway, I mentioned that I could contribute some precooked frozen cheeseburgers, and K said well, in that case, she could make potato salad, and when Barb stopped to think about what she could bring, I made the case for deviled eggs.

As it happened, I got sick as a dog on Christmas Eve and so missed out on all the festivities and, most important, the deviled eggs. I was starting to feel better on the 27th, when Barb had her whole grandkid gang over for chaos and the opening of presents, but by then my back was in spasm and I could barely hobble around the house with a cane.

this little piggy went to S.F.

I was dreading the travel part of the trip, as always, and there was plenty to justify my fears. Green Bay to Chicago was quick and uneventful, but then I waited in O’Hare for 9 hours before they got their hands on a plane that worked. The first one was delayed for some reason—the day was bright and clear, so they couldn’t blame the weather—and someone later said that they had taken “our” plane to haul some other people to their destination, but who knows. It’s not like you get a full accounting later. You just keep moving forward, or trying to. After an hour or so, a plane appeared, and we all filed onboard. We sat there on the ground for I don’t know how long, but I didn’t mind that so much because (a) the seat was more comfortable than the ones in the terminal, (b) I could direct the overhead air vent at my face, and (c) I learned that you can indeed use the toilet when the plane isn’t in the air…. I had always wondered about that.

After time had been rendered completely meaningless, the pilot came on the blower and said the plane had no food or beverages on board. Oh no! And I was so looking forward to that 6-course meal! More time… drifting, drifting… and then he came back on and said that the cargo door was “bent.” So we all had to get off the plane and go back to sitting in the hard plastic seats. There followed many hollow announcements of apology and thanks for our patience. I don’t know that patience is the right word for it. They should say, “Thank you for not advancing on your captain and crew with pitchforks and flaming torches.”

I had a weak moment when I wished with all my heart that I could just get on a northbound plane, get in my Jeep and go home. I called Barbara and told her that the delay was surely a sign that I shouldn’t come out there this time. She talked me down, but I knew I wasn’t serious anyway. I’m pretty good at resigning myself to fate when I have to. While we were on the phone, a teenage boy with a bright blue Mohawk walked by, so I said to B, loud enough so he could hear me, “There’s a beautiful young man with a blue Mohawk here.” He turned and gave me a goofy grin, which kind of made my day. I loved that just about everyone waiting for the flight to S.F. looked like they belonged there. Like the San Francisco diaspora returning to the homeland.

All right, plane finally arrives, flap flap flap to S.F., and I get into the city at about midnight local time. The Walgreen’s near my hotel is closed, so I go looking for a store that’s open all night so I can get some supplies. I drive around and around, but they’ve rolled up the sidewalks like some hick town. I finally go all the way over to the Safeway on Market, where the dark parking lot is full of men sitting in cars, surely up to no good, and the store is dimly lit. It feels like one of those dystopian futures, though there is plenty of food and drink, and I don’t have to sell my body in exchange for the last 4-pack of Frappuccino. In fact, I brazenly move among the late-night denizens in my skull-and-harlequin t-shirt, feeling oddly safe and untouchable.


The painting week was strange but compelling, as always. I seem to understand less and less about this process the longer I paint. I don’t even know how I’m going to describe what went on. But here goes.

All week my conscious mind was lagging behind whatever was happening on the inside. At one point I told Barbara I wasn’t interested in what I was painting. We sat down together, and she asked “if there could be some feeling under there.” I had absolutely nothing to have “feelings” about, but my eyes immediately flooded with tears. It was bizarre. I used to have explanations for why I was crying. I went back to my painting, and suddenly I was hit by the thought that if my family were all to die, I would be alone in a way I’ve never been before. It felt so primal, something about my biological ties being cut. So I painted my 3 closest family members dead in their graves and cried like a motherless child. I couldn’t believe there had been no feeling on the surface and then POW, something completely unexpected popped up. It was the first of many times when I realized I had no idea what was going on.

Something is triggered in me when I leave my secure, cozy life in the U.P. to head for San Francisco for these intensives. Even though I take the same bloody airline, stay in the same hotel, and rent the same car, there is an essential quality of the Unknown in the experience. Of course, the Unknown exists in the U.P., too, but in my own home it’s easier to delude myself that I’m in charge. When I drive down to Green Bay, leave my Jeep to weather the elements, and enter the bizarro world of air travel, I am embarking on 10 days of adventure, which to me is just another word for lack of control.

There’s also the matter of sensory overload. To go from the bucolic quiet of a small town to the stimulation of the big city—plunging right into traffic on 280 in my rented Chevy Cobalt, joining the dense stream of cars down 19th Avenue—is exciting, even after 18 hours “on the road” and 4 Dramamine, but I’m looking ahead to 7 days of painting, which is as unpredictable as anything I’ve ever done—even a roller coaster has a defined route and a safe landing. And regardless of how well or badly the week goes, I then face the trip home, with its inherent insecurities. So I’m both thrilled and terrified and not entirely sure why I decided to do this at all.

As the days went on, I became increasingly overwhelmed by everything I was feeling. Being away from my familiar routine… having to sleep and eat according to a schedule not of my making… seeing more people in a day than I usually see in a month… it all just seemed like too much. But aside from the various stressors, I was enjoying being with friends I hadn’t seen in a year or more. Knowing the time would be over soon, I would gaze at Diane(s) or Barbara or Terry (etc.) and try to be here now (an imperative from the ‘60s). But there was no way to capture the experiences and hold on to them, except in dim, useless memory. Then there was the food—burritos from L’Avenida!… mu shu chicken at Alice’s Restaurant!… fettuccini carbonara at Bella!… quesadillas at Lakeside!… avocado BLTs at Chloe’s!… beef skewers and Caesar salad at Asqew!… pasta at Osteria!… more pasta at a bistro in Hayes Valley!… Stop me before I spend the next 5 pages talking about food!


At one point I was painting a building that started to look like a mosque, and I told Barbara I was painting a religion that “wants to kill everyone who doesn’t believe in it.” I became quite worked up over it. I took my notebook into the sharing room and scribbled down an emotional rant, which began: Open Letter to the Muslim Terrorist Brotherhood: FUCK YOU. (The Anglo-Saxon words are still the best.) But when I talked about it in the group later, I realized that my strong feelings weren’t really about the terrorists: Something else was going on. “Something else” was always going on! I could have ranted just as vehemently against American bankers: These days, their arrogance inflames me like nothing else.

Whenever I tried to hang my feelings on some external hook, I discovered I had no idea what was really happening. I bemoaned the fact that “I”—the “I” I think I know and want to keep abreast of any inner tectonic shifts or volcanic activity—wasn’t getting anything out of this. It’s putting the cart (you) before the horse to think that the important change ought to happen to the cart, that the cart is in charge and the horse be damned. But if you’re sitting in the cart and the horse is taking off for parts unknown, what are you supposed to do with that? All you know is the cart! You know, intellectually, that the horse is also “you,” but it’s a “you” that has a mind of its own and doesn’t necessarily stop to graze by a stream and let you catch up and rearrange the halter around its neck. In other words, you can take your horse to water, but you can’t make yourself drink in the reality of life on the tip of this iceberg—that “you” are only the visible tip sticking out of the water, and the horse is the rest of the iceberg, if icebergs could be equine animals. Forgive me for the mixed metaphors, but I think those metaphors need to be shaken up now and then. By the way, if you stare at the word “mix” long enough, you wonder how it ever ended up in the English language (15th century, from Latin mixtus).

Where was I? Oh yes. Painting, feeling, overwhelm. Mid week, Barbara had me paint on 8 taped-together sheets of paper, making each painting a little larger than 4 x 6 ft. I did four of those paintings over the last 3 days of the intensive, with little sense of its doing me any good, though Barbara kept saying I was having “huge movement” in my process.

intensive care

But in the midst of all the confusion and the mysterious highs and lows of my emotional thermostat, I felt loved and cared for all week. I received so many gifts, some physical but mostly emotional. The kindness of friends. When I discovered that Chloe’s café wasn’t serving Coke anymore (“No Coke! Pepsi!”), DD went across the street to a small market and bought me one. On the way back to the studio we visited a new gourmet chocolate shop (Saratoga) at 16th and Sanchez, and after I had already picked out 3 truffles, DD declared she was buying. Whenever she drove, she and DL had to help me get my seatbelt fastened. I felt like a big, bundled-up kid or a semicompetent adult on a day pass from the Home. One day we stopped to browse in a cookbook store (Omnivore) on Cesar Chavez nr. Church, and DL was inspired to buy a cookbook of lemon desserts. She went home that night and made some wonderful lemon biscotti for the whole group, and a few days later made another batch for me, T, and DD to take home.

Terry, of course, was endlessly helpful, generous, and a joy to be around. We had good times laughing our respective asses off in her hotel room, where we noshed, watched TV, and checked our e-mail on her laptop. On our way to and from the studio, she helped me avoid killing numerous pedestrians, who would saunter past my car at stop signs in the night, wearing their all-black clothes, and of course many bicyclists, who blithely streak through stop signs while exhorting motorists to follow the rules of the road. Whenever I seemed oblivious to a person in the middle of the street or a car pulling out in front of us, T would gasp and then apologize, but I told her it was better to warn me than to remain silent. I fear that she took years off her life, riding with me.

DD’s hilarious “Table for one!” when I got too rambunctious at lunch still makes me giggle.

One day at the Lakeside Café I was seated facing the windows, and I interrupted by own diatribe (topic lost in the mists of time) to note that a truck with “Wolves Heating” on the side was going by. D and D, both social workers, pointed out that I was “stimulus bound,” meaning that my attention is constantly being diverted by new sights, sounds, or thoughts. I think it’s one of my most endearing traits, actually, but then I doubt I’m fully aware of the difference between endearing and annoying when it comes to my own traits. But it was fun to imagine people huddling up to wolves to stay warm.

Lately, I’ve been noticing that “multitasking” is suddenly considered a bad thing. It’s as if one-track-mindedness got itself a publicist. In the past, we were assured that being able to juggle several tasks at the same time was a useful skill. Now all I hear is that multitasking makes you less efficient at everything you do. I’m suspicious about this. It seems that women are the ultimate multitaskers, to the point where we can be carrying on a conversation in one booth in a restaurant while eavesdropping on the people in the booth behind us. Men, on the other hand, are the ultimate one-track-minders. In the 1970s, women were said to be suited for only the lowest-paying jobs because we’re “good with details.” (Women were librarians; men were library directors.) Well, who decided that details are important when, say, cataloging books but not when writing computer code or launching missiles into space? I’m not saying it’s a conscious conspiracy that women’s natural gifts keep being downgraded, but there seems to be a male-engendered biological “law” that keeps a distance between men’s and women’s status in society at any cost. The latest appeal to tradition and male hegemony is the cry that “men are being turned into women,” like god forbid. As if women, those powerful shrews who have been pretending to be downtrodden all these years, have been pulling the strings all along! All those mothers of young sons, all those female elementary school teachers, with their emasculating rules and biases, are finally succeeding in their quest to turn men into weeping wimps! Where will it end? With women in the driver’s seat? Making decisions in society? Acting—what—all independent??? Well, I have known a few men who have made giant strides toward not being assholes, and they didn’t do it by becoming wimps and crybabies. Masculinity is not lost when a man respects women, when he doesn’t rely on some mythical “superiority” to justify throwing his weight around.


All week my body was in protest mode. My back and legs hurt whether I was walking, lying down, or getting in and out of cars. Just stepping up on a low stool to paint the highest parts of the big paintings was painful enough to elicit a tiny, ladylike grunt. When I made the mistake of sitting on the stool to paint on the lowest parts, it took forever to haul myself off it without sprawling on the floor. I blamed the long flight and the hotel bed, but I suspect I’m just entering that lovely time of life when everything hurts, always. I’m reminded of those experiments they do with high school kids where they bundle them up and simulate blindness and deafness so they’ll feel compassion for the oldsters, but I fear this is no experiment, this is real life.

And emotionally, I was torn between the desire to have more time with my friends and wanting desperately to be home. I seem to equally crave the security of habit and the excitement of the new. In a way, it’s been the pattern of my life, but I’m feeling it more acutely now. Considering how much I complain about painting and about the anxiety-provoking air transport to get me to S.F. and back—and the money, of course—it’s amazing that I continue to do it. It’s not all good food and good times. But it’s the only place I feel that strange, compelling mixtus of mystery and challenge and love that gladdens my heart even as it puts a strain on my body. Even though I can’t mindfully retain the experience, there is a lasting impact down deep that even United Airlines can’t destroy. Following close on the heels of my great relief at being home again with my kitties, I started fantasizing about going back for the May intensive. I’m crazy, yes. But you knew that.

Being newly sensitive to how I shouldn’t “comment” on other people’s experience shared in the group, I regret that I cannot relay some of the more hilarious and touching moments that took place during the week. Can I just name some people, and they’ll know of what I speak? Alyssa, Amanda, Martha, Sima…. OK, this won’t do. There’s no way to convey the richness of it all, and the more specific I am, the more I’m aware of leaving people out who were just as essential to my experience.

On Thursday night, I had an out-of-painting experience when I met my friends Peggy and Cally (who were stopping over on their way to London, lah-de-dah), Jean, godchild Kelly, and Kelly’s new husband Duncan for dinner. It was a short but sweet evening, and I was relieved to find that I liked Duncan, whom I had never met. I don’t think I embarrassed myself by getting all painting-weird, but my friends are used to me after 20-30 years, and Duncan has read the ‘zine so you couldn’t say he wasn’t warned.

On the last day, the painting was easy, our foursome had our final lunch together, and we had our final group sharing, which generally consists of multiple expressions of gratitude to Barbara, the rest of the group, and “It”—the creative process itself, the “indefinite antecedent” that no one can truly define. It’s a two-edged sword, this final sharing, because sometimes you finish the week feeling happy, fulfilled, and in love with everyone, and sometimes you’re left feeling out of sorts and impatient with the long slow process of listening to everyone else talk about how happy they are.

As it happened, I was feeling uncomfortable, somewhat estranged from the group, thinking about having to get up at 2 a.m. to start my long slog home—in other words, already gone. As the feeling built, it became more and more physical. I started to feel nauseated, so I got up and went to the bathroom, locked the door, and started crying hard. Again, I had no idea why I was crying. It wasn’t as simple as (a) I want to leave or (b) I don’t want to leave, but it was probably a combination of the two that tried mighty hard to defy natural law and occupy the same space at the same time. I won’t go into the Archimedes Principle of Displacement, aren’t you glad? (I like how I blithely cite scientific principles without having the slightest idea what I’m talking about.)

When I finally came out of the bathroom, the group was disbanding. The time after the final sharing is always chaotic, with people gathering up their belongings and their paintings, cleaning their palettes and brushes, and saying good-bye to everyone. I blubbered my way through all that, and when I finally came face to face with Barbara, she took one look at me and said, “Finally! I knew it had to happen sometime.” Of course, she couldn’t tell me what had to happen, what it meant, or what I was supposed to do now, but at least the locks had been opened and the boats were rising (your basic dam metaphor).

this little piggy went oui oui oui all the way home

All week, the weather reports from back East had been horrendous. One report said Wisconsin had taken all snow plows off the roads because the snow just blew back after they plowed it. I had no trouble conjuring every possible horrible outcome.

I got up at 2 a.m. in order to get dressed, eat a hard-boiled egg I had saved from the day before’s continental breakfast, return the rental car, and get past security to the gate for a 6 a.m. departure. I highly recommend this schedule. The 2 a.m. part is hard, but the airport is nearly empty in those wee hours. However, I had been used to airport staff being everywhere, herding me and others into the proper lines and following the proper procedures.

Sidebar: I just had a brilliant idea. They should hire Temple Grandin, the autistic woman who made slaughterhouses more humane by seeing the process from the point of view of the animals, thus reducing their anxiety. Since we feel like cattle in airports anyway, why not streamline our process?

When I had successfully navigated 101 to the rental car center—having managed not to be fooled by the tricky San Bruno/San Bruno Ave. split—there was not a soul in sight. I followed a sign pointing “through the glass doors and to the left,” but when I got there, no one was there either. So I followed another sign that directed me to go up one floor, which I did, and then I had to go back almost as far in the opposite direction to reach the main car rental area, where the Avis counter was empty as Jesus’ tomb…. (did you know you can find a recipe online for Empty Tomb Cookies?….). I was already sweating profusely, my legs hurt, and my big toe was about to turn gangrene from walking in new shoes all week. I decided to hobble down toward Budget where a few people were hanging around. When I got to the very end of the Avis counter, there sat a quiet little employee whom I hadn’t seen because he was blocked by a big sign saying I don’t know what, but I don’t think they “try harder” anymore, and when he greeted me—did he not hear me galumphing along with my rolling suitcase and dropping my painting tube and cane?—I said, “You don’t make it easy.” I didn’t bother to explain, but then again, he didn’t ask.

I had had an epiphany the day before that I was only responsible for getting myself through each step of the process, I could do nothing about the airplane or the weather, so that cut my worry by 2/3, at least in theory. I next took the air train back to the terminal and hobbled downstairs to the United check-in counter, where there was a line of passengers but no employees in sight. Slowly, slowly, the workers started trickling in, and I managed to get a luggage tag and a boarding pass. On to “security,” which is the Unknown with X-rays. (Remember when “security” meant feeling safe?) I put my shoes, jacket, bag, painting tube, cell phone, and cane on the conveyor belt (I wished they had a conveyor belt for me), successfully passed through the metal detector, and was specially chosen for an extra pat down! I spread my arms out for the TSA lass, who said something I didn’t hear except for the word “up.” So I looked up, and she half-giggled and said “PALMS up!” I am such a dork. But at that hour of the day you can get by with a lot by stating the obvious—“It’s so early!”—as if, “You should see me mid afternoon, I’m quite the Einstein!” The pat down revealed nothing more extraordinary than my sweaty armpits and flabby love handles, so I was allowed to proceed. I made it home by 4:00 that afternoon. Sweet, sweet homecoming.


A few days ago, we had a rousing good time at my family’s Friday night get-together. Yeah, I was surprised, too. It started when my nephew and I got into a ridiculous argument about prison overcrowding. My solution was to stop incarcerating people for simple drug possession, and his was to shoot everyone on sight who wasn’t “useful to society.” I don’t know why I kept trying to reason with him (“Someone could decide that you’re not ‘useful to society’”), because he kept coming back to his favorite point, which was that drug users will eventually/inevitably “kill a family of 4” either by breaking into their house in their desperation to get money for drugs or by plowing into them on the highway while under the influence. Voices were raised, gunshots were simulated—POW! POW!—and I finally just got silly and agreed—“Kill ‘em!”—whenever he raised his hypotheticals. I did assure him I’d come to visit him in prison, though. At one point K ostentatiously tried to redirect our attention to something on the TV, and of course that got my usual dander up, and I said, “At least we’re having a ‘discussion’ for a change, it’s better than just sitting here!” She said she didn’t want “the tears to come” (mine, presumably). And from there, we left off the drug&killing talk and went on to enjoy a rollicking evening of outbursts, blowhardy opinions, off-color commentary, and humorous asides—and I occasionally let the others get a word in, too. MP was feeling a lot better since his knee surgery, so he joined in on the hilarity instead of falling asleep in his recliner. He told us a few things about his time in “Nam,” but it wasn’t heavy (he’s my brother-in-law), it was mostly about how his knee got fucked up. K finally joined in, too, and so did my nephew’s girlfriend. I want to be more specific, but it’s mostly a blur—I only know there were more dick jokes than mindful, meaningful communication, and MP claimed to be “scared” by my paintings, and K brought out a long cardboard tube she had gotten from work, and visual humor ensued from that. MP and Joshua talked about all the “assholes” in town who put a plow on the front of their too-small “light trucks,” complete with hand gestures showing what happens to the truck and its ball bearings. There were riffs about heating bills, temperamental energy-saving bulbs, physical therapy, really really fat people, the right way to cook “brats,” health insurance, the sports teams of our youth, and a two-lane bowling alley behind a bar on 13th St. that I had never heard of. Barb cracked herself up with a long joke about the Minnesota Vikings and shared a teaching moment involving oil reserves and a pile of Starburst candies. The important thing is that we talked. It was stimulating and fun, and I daresay a good time was had by all.

The evening also gave me further insight into our respective roles in the family. Barb is a monologist (every room is a classroom to her); K is a hall monitor/peacekeeper; I’m a performer; and the guys do and say whatever they want. Barb and I clash when either of us hogs the floor; K is happy as long as no one disagrees about anything; and the guys do and say whatever they want. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

[Mary McKenney]

%d bloggers like this: