Posts Tagged ‘Upper Peninsula (U.P.)’

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 #52: November 2011

November 10, 2011

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

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


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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



patient does not wish to share…

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A few postscripts:

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


Mary McKenney

mary’zine #47: November 2010

November 7, 2010

Above is another of P. DuPont’s wonderful pictures of the Bay-called-Green. Every year or so, she comes to visit me for my birthday, which, unfortunately for her, is in late October, so she freezes the whole time. This year, she had an agenda: She had offered to paint my upstairs bathroom, kitchen ceiling, and part of another room where my contractor had repaired some cracks and plastered them over. I guess she likes to have a purpose in life. (I would rather pay other people to carry out my purposes in life, at least when they involve house maintenance and yard work. Of course, I “paid” her only in sparkling conversation.)

She also wanted to see the 49’ers game—a problem, because I got rid of my TV some months ago. (I’m not a TV snob; just wanted to save some money.)  I watch “Modern Family” on, buy season passes to “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and “The Good Wife” on iTunes, and beg my sister Barb to let me come over and watch “Dexter” and “In Treatment” on Sunday nights (like an ex-smoker who doesn’t buy cigarettes anymore but cadges them off other people). Then it turned out that P’s beloved S.F. Giants were in the World Series, so it became a project to figure out how she could see or at least hear some of the games.

Oct. 27: As usual, I drove down to Green Bay to pick her up. She was supposed to arrive at about 10 p.m., but in the “It Goes Without Saying” Department, her plane was late. So I found myself sitting all alone—no passengers, no one else waiting for an arrival, not even an employee in sight—in the airport at 11:30, staring at the monitor of arrivals and departures, searching in vain for any record of her flight. We were apparently going to begin Airport Life anew the next morning at 6 a.m. I took this as a bad sign. It was an odd feeling, like I had missed the End of the World and was stuck there alone forever with only the peanuts and candy bars in the vending machine for sustenance. I called United, and the friendly robot voice informed me that P’s plane was indeed in the air between Chicago and G.B., so that was comforting. An employee eventually turned up, asked me where the plane was, and I told her it was expected at 12:03 but was already 20 minutes late. She chuckled at the fact that the flight had “dropped off the board a while ago” so she’d had to get the information from me, a mere nobody. I could have trashed the restroom and set fire to the seats in the waiting area while she lounged in some back room doing God knows what, but I guess they don’t worry about security at midnight in the middle of the week.

Oct. 28: P rooted around in the garage and found the paint my sister K had used for the kitchen ceiling—“Travertine Beige”—a really nice color that I call “Yellow”—and set about the task of repainting the large area that had been covered by my ancient fluorescent light fixture. Later, we drove back down to Green Bay for dinner at the Republic Chophouse, which P had found online. The food was excellent, and I couldn’t get over how nice the booths were: secluded, with generously sized, upholstered benches rather than naugahyde-over-foam repaired in spots with duct tape. I also exclaimed over the cloth napkins, told P I hadn’t eaten anywhere in 6 years where the silverware wasn’t wrapped and taped into a paper napkin (I exaggerated slightly, as is my wont). I have made the transition to hick in record time. On the way home we found the World Series game on the radio. The Giants had already won Game 1, so P was stoked. When we got back to my house, we tried to get reception on my tiny Sony radio, but it was hard going. Still, we managed to listen and marveled at the number of runs her team was racking up. In the eighth inning, with 2 out and a comfortable lead of 6 to nothing, she inexplicably decided to call C in Oregon to tell her about our day. I heard her asking C if the cat missed her. I took the radio upstairs, where the reception was only marginally better, and suddenly—I must have spaced out or just didn’t understand what was happening—the Giants got 3 more runs, and I’m yelling down to P, “9 to nothing! 9 to nothing!” She came upstairs and started looking for the game streaming online (never found it), while I continued to listen with the radio up to my ear, reporting on every pitch until it was over. It was a weird role reversal.

Oct. 29: To Menard’s (home improvement store) to get supplies for the bathroom paint job. P suggested a dark gray to cover the boring white, and while I was skeptical of the color she picked out, we appreciated the aptness of the name—“Family Ties.” (They don’t bother to name colors colors anymore.) I can barely walk lately, so after the excruciating torment of navigating the huge store—paint in one far corner, cashiers in opposite far corner—I mostly napped while she worked (she actually whistled) until it was time to go to the ritual birthday dinner at Schussler’s with my sisters (Barb and K) and brother-in-law (MP). They first met P not long after I did and get along fine. P and K, in particular, are hilarious together. They both laugh a lot, so the two of them in K’s kitchen trying to cut the birthday cake and transfer it to plates was apparently the height of comedy. P and MP talked football and baseball, and I sat in (K’s) recliner starring as the Birthday Girl and raking in the many generous gifts. The World Series wasn’t on that day, so we didn’t have to worry about finding the game.

Oct. 30: My birthday! I don’t remember much about it, actually, but I never forget a meal, so I can report that P and I had a wonderful dinner at The Landing, now one of two (S.F.) Bay Area-quality restaurants in “historic downtown Menominee.” My favorite waitress, Cindy, was working, and I got to brag about having a friend who not only came all the way from Oregon for my birthday but was painting my bathroom. Cindy was suitably impressed. She had met Terry and Jean (from Massachusetts), and Diane (from San Francisco) 2 years ago so has this image of me as someone who is much loved by friends from all over (which is true, amazingly enough). Conversely, when Cindy came by my sister’s garage sale last summer, MP could hardly believe that I knew someone locally that he didn’t know.


Oct. 31: I met the dog next door, who’s named Buttons and is as cute as one. I was outside feeding the birds and she was barking up a storm, anxious to get at me, so there but for the grace of 2 fences went my rabid attacker. When I turned to see what the commotion was all about, there was my neighbor waving at me. He and Buttons were both dressed for winter, and I was out there in a t-shirt and shorts. My body is apparently “burning up from the inside” (according to an alarming article I found online), so I’m always hot, and it might also be the cause of my sudden-onset “arthritis” in both knees. I’m not one to ask, “Why me?,” but it’s funny how put out I feel at having anything go wrong with my body, even at the age of the Beatles’ lyrics, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me….” Like: Am I really expected to hobble painfully for the rest of my life?

K called and invited us over to watch the Packer game and order pizza for lunch. I started obsessing about what to do, because we had already made plans with Barb. P calmly pointed out that we could go to K&MP’s for football and Barb’s for the World Series. Which is what we did. We brought take-out to Barb’s from our new Mexican restaurant, La Cabaña—I’m so excited—The citizenry has taken to La Cabaña in droves. It may not be the best Mexican food I’ve ever had, but it’s way better than Taco Bell or Taco John’s, and it’s run by real Mexicans. According to my haircutter, the owner worked in his father’s restaurants in Chicago and moved up here because he found the area so beautiful. I’ve heard all my life about how much Chicagoans love the U.P, which I guess they see as wild rather than boring. Well, come on down! Or UP, rather.

Nov. 1: By now, pages were flying off the calendar like in a Frank Capra movie. Only 2 days to P’s departure. She finished painting the bathroom and did a beautiful job; she was right about the color, a kind of gray/brown that changes subtly with the light. We went to Schloegel’s (family dining establishment) for supper. I had lobbied for Mexican again, but she didn’t go for that. So when she was perusing the menu at Schloegel’s, it took me a few seconds to respond to her idle question, “Have you ever had their taco salad?” When it finally hit me, I said, “If you order a taco salad, I’m going to kill you.” We both laughed like madwomen—the main pleasure in having her here, along with the long, leisurely talks that we usually conduct on the phone once a week. She’d overheard a woman in a nearby booth tell the waitress that she preferred Taco Bell to the new Mexican restaurant (which is next door to Schloegel’s) because it’s “pricey” ($7.99 for 3 steak enchiladas, rice, salad, and chips). Some people have also remarked that there’s a “language barrier” there, as if we have to point and grunt at the menu to be understood. We just don’t know how to handle the differently ethnic around here.

Nov. 2: P has a calming influence on me when it comes to doing what needs to be done. It was election day, and I had reluctantly concluded that I wasn’t on permanent absentee ballot status as I had thought—meaning that I had to go to the high school, find the gym, and remember how to vote in public. (I was a permanent absentee voter in California for many years.) I devoutly wished that I could just forget the whole thing, but I knew that both P and my sister (who wanted me to vote for certain school board members) wouldn’t hear of it. We also had to go back to Menard’s to see if we could find a match for the paint in the cats’ room*. And I had to buy food for the little beasts, and I wanted to get a sandwich for lunch because I knew I’d never make it to our 7:30 dinner reservation. I was stressing about the effort it would take to accomplish all this, but P couldn’t have been more calm about it—but then, she can walk.

*Yes, Brutus and Luther have their own room.

We made all the requisite stops and I even managed to get through it all without having to pee. The voting place was well hidden: I guess you’re just supposed to know where it is, having lived here all your life. It was annoyingly unorganized, but I got through it, and I later found out that one of the board members on Barb’s list won by 1 vote! Mine! She was happy about that, and in another example of my sudden wielding of serendipitous power, I mentioned that the flat white thing she described finding in her cat’s litter could be a tapeworm—and it was! She was ecstatic (that she was able to get him treated for it), and I felt, temporarily, like I could do no wrong. Didn’t last long, but you know.

That night P and Barb and I tried our newest restaurant, Table Six, which is upscale Italian. I can’t believe we now have two high-end restaurants barely a block from each other. The owners of The Landing are apparently all pissy about the new place and have gone to great lengths to keep Table Six customers from parking in their lot. Small-town rancor is alive and well. We were delighted to discover that the food at Table Six is excellent. Barb and I played it safe with lasagna, but P had steak and asparagus risotto (risotto? in Menominee?), which I know was great because I got the leftovers.

Nov. 3: I drove P to the airport and reluctantly let her go back to her life. I returned to mine by having an early lunch at El Sarape on the east side of Green Bay. I can’t get enough of Mexican food, it seems.


I rarely read the poems in The New Yorker because they’re usually so obscure, but this one caught my eye because of the title (I’m drawn to anything that mentions social security, having finally attained it.) I like the poem a lot and especially appreciate finding a new (to me) poet.


The mind seeks what is dead, for what is living escapes it. —Miguel de Unamuno

I’m practicing the stoic art of insouciance,

not because I prefer not thinking about

what signing up for Medicare means,

or why so many who came after me are being

called first, but because downstairs

my soul was examined for signs of violence

and duplicity. Its fatigue and ambivalence

weren’t visible, apparently. In the next row

a man is telling a girl bobbing to an iPhone

to sit still before the guard returns.

When I was her age signing up meant going

to Vietnam, which meant practicing

the Zen art of vanishing. At the windows

a blind man is asking why he didn’t receive

his disability payments in prison,

he needs his “…sustenance.” Behind me,

another man is asking to see my paper,

he’s looking for work, he says. Happy

to be free of “Afghanistan: What Could Work,”

I hand him my New York Review of Books.

Bismarck said explaining was a weakness.

As her father explains the necessity

of securing her future, the girl squirms.

She fears only boredom. I feared everything.

In five months my father would die

and mother and I would live on the $200 a month

his Social Security paid. At the windows

the blind man is practicing the existential art

of grovelling, exposing the stitches on his scalp

to a clerk who’s practicing the cynical art

of indifference. The girl’s soul, hovering near

the ceiling, is enjoying its moment of radiance.

My soul, fretfully pacing the water cooler,

is practicing the fatalistic art of understanding

that nothing can be done about Afghanistan,

that in order to influence the future we must kill it.

—Philip Schultz

my body, my (plunged, prodded, and poked) self

Last time, I left you with kind of a cliff-hanger about my medical condition. Well, I have neither fallen off the cliff nor been rescued in the meantime. The wheels of the medical-industrial complex grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.

At least it has been established that I do not have colon cancer, and I do not have breast cancer. That leaves xn places in my body where they may still find something horribly wrong. I feel like the elephant in the fable about the blind men touching its trunk, tail, ears, etc., and trying to guess what it is.

As part of the follow-up to my physical, I’ve had a colonoscopy, a mammogram, an ultrasound when they found something on the mammogram, and a biopsy of the something they found on the mammogram. Still to be resolved are the high cholesterol, high C-reactive protein (CRP), and abnormal white blood cell count. Oh, and a heart murmur. The high CRP was something I knew about before, but the lab tests keep coming back with wildly different results. When I went to a screening clinic for heart desire (Freudian slip! I mean “heart disease”!) a couple years ago, it was 10 (supposed to be no more than 3). A month or so ago, it was 29, and when they checked it again a week or so later it was 14. Also, my heart rate has been erratic at the doctor’s office—between 80 and 116 at different times, for no apparent reason.

Before the colonoscopy, a nurse who had just taken my blood pressure proceeded to ask me a million questions that I had already answered a million times. Those people are thorough—different nurses kept popping up and asking me my name and birthdate as if they were trying to catch me in a lie. While the first nurse was questioning me and entering my answers into a computer, another nurse was trying to get the IV needle in my arm. My sisters and I all have veins that strongly resist capture. So she’s fussing with my arms and hands, poking here and there, and the Question Nurse comes to “Do you have high blood pressure?” And I quip, “I don’t know, you tell me!” (See, she had just taken it. Do I have to explain everything?) And the Needle Nurse smiles! At last! Someone appreciates my feeble attempt at humor! And eventually the needle goes in, mission accomplished.

Part of my problem in joking with strangers is that I don’t have the courage of my convictions. I don’t sell it, or I don’t sell it with the requisite ha-ha or strong, confident deadpan. My deadpan only seems to work with people who’ve heard it many times before. I met my new doctor (I think I told you), and at my physical, he was crouched on the floor with one of my feet in each hand for some reason, while I sat in my “gown” on the end of the examining table. I thought of restraining my immediate association but then decided to go ahead. I said, “I’d like to see something in a nice loafer?” See, that questioning uplift at the end of the sentence conveyed my lack of confidence. He just said, “I can’t help you with that,” and when I croaked, “JOKE,” he said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were joking.” I don’t really blame him; he’s doing his thing, and I’m making some bizarre commentary that he has no context for. He’s Barb’s doctor, too, and she had an appointment with him a couple days after mine. She said to him, “It took you a while to get the loafer joke, didn’t it?” He had to agree.

The next time I saw him, I said, “I’ve never felt comfortable with a doctor in my whole life before.” He asked if I was comfortable there, and I said, “Very much.” He seemed pleased. It’s really true, and I still can’t believe it. Is it because it’s the U.P.—no, actually, it’s N.E.W. (Northeastern Wisconsin), but close enough—that they have to try harder? When you go to the hospital (“BA”MC) (I explained that last time, look it up), there are signs everywhere saying “Thank you for choosing BAMC.” And I always think, “I didn’t know I had a choice.” But maybe they’re sensitive because it’s common knowledge that “people from Menominee/Marinette go to Green Bay for health care, and people from Green Bay go to Milwaukee.” I suppose Milwaukeeans set their sights on Chicago. Anyway, everyone who works at the hospital here seems to be genuinely friendly and just busting out all over in their desire to please. That was not my experience in the real (S.F.) Bay Area.


So I’m lying on a hospital bed with an IV sticking out of my hand, waiting to be taken for my colonoscopy. Barb is sitting in the recliner next to the bed crocheting a scarf. (She is an inveterate crocheter, an unrepentant, unregenerate crocheter.) Mounted on the wall is a TV, which is showing a series of nature photographs, but because I don’t have my glasses on, all I can see are blobs of green and blue. I wonder idly what’s in the IV bag, and Barb thinks there must be a mild sedative, though I am feeling anything but sedated—or loopy, one of the consolations I was looking forward to after enduring the 6-hour trial of drinking 9 tall glasses of lemonade-like liquid the night before. (“Lemonade-like” in the sense that someone must have waved a lemon in the general direction of a small dune of powdered laxative before it got to me.) I insisted I wasn’t in the “feeling no pain” zone, but then I started paying closer attention to the blobs of nature on the TV and noticed that now there were fluffy white clouds streaming leftward against a blue background. And I started giggling. Like, if you’re feeling anxious about the soon-to-be hose stuck up your ass, surely you’ll be pleasantly distracted by these faux clouds drifting by. I pointed out to Barb that one of the clouds looked like Dick Cheney, but she did not find this quip amusing, and usually she’s highly amused by me, so that’s when I decided I must indeed be intravenously ingesting some sort of happy concoction. Then I had one of my patented epiphanies when I realized that, in the future, the world will be like the movie Beetlejuice in that there will be no “outside.” You’ll spend your life in rooms without windows (there will be nuclear winter beyond the walls, or maybe just abstract patterns or white noise) but you’ll have a TV monitor—or maybe they will have perfected the showing of images on your retinas—to feed you scenes of life as it used to be. Old people will tell their grandchildren about the far-away long-ago when you could actually be in the picture and surrounded by the picture as you were now surrounded by blank walls and closed-circuit TVs, and the young’uns will roll their eyes at Grandma and Grandpa’s lame, pointless memories, as they do now when we oldsters start waxing nostalgic about Grateful Dead concerts and safe, cheap recreational drugs. As I was going on about all this, I had the distinct feeling that Barb wasn’t listening. Well, at least I was amusing myself. I mean, somebody has to.

They finally come for me, and the last thing I remember is being told to turn on my side. Next thing I know, I’m back in my “room,” Barb is still crocheting, and I have disagreeable pain in my stomach, which lasts all the way through the recovery period and on to the car and the restaurant, Schloegel’s, where I’m desperate to eat something after more than 32 hours of fasting. I’m trying to discreetly let a little air out of my bum in little toots. The Recovery Nurse had said I could eat “anything” now, so I took her at her word and ordered Swedish pancakes and sausage—except that I told the waitress “Swedish meatballs and sausage,” and fortunately Barb noticed and I was spared a meat overdose. At the hospital everyone had been adamant that I wouldn’t remember a thing the doctor or the nurses said to me after the procedure, so I was equally adamant that I was perfectly alert, though I could tell that my glazed eyes betrayed me. And I did remember pretty much everything, which boiled down to “Don’t do anything for the rest of the day; tomorrow you can resume your normal life.” Since my “normal life” consists of not doing much of anything anyway, I did not find this instruction difficult to follow.

After we ate, I needed to get some groceries, and I asked Barb if she thought I “deserved” to buy a batch of bakery cookies after everything I’d been through, and she wholeheartedly agreed, which I knew she would. So I bought white chocolate-macadamia nut cookies, some broccoli, and the all-too-seldom-appearing cream of broccoli soup from the soup bar. I could give up cookies if I absolutely had to, but I couldn’t give up broccoli. Barb dropped me off at home, and I got set up in my comfy armchair with the cookies and a Thermos of water by my side and spent the next 10 hours alternately sleeping and waking up long enough to eat a couple of cookies, add a word or two to the crossword puzzle I was working on, and go back to sleep. I felt great when I woke up.

Oh, the doctor found a “medium-size” polyp in me that was presumably benign and sternly announced that I would have to have another colonoscopy in 3 years. Hey, piece o’ cake, doc. 3 years is like forever.


And on we go. Two days later, I went for my mammogram—which always makes me think of “candygram” from the “Saturday Night Live” sketch about the land shark; I picture a tech in a white smock knocking on my door with the coy implication that she has something wonderful to give me. I was sitting in the waiting room and looked up to see that several large panels in the ceiling—alternating with regular gray acoustic tiles—showed clouds and blue sky like in the colonoscopy room, but they weren’t moving. It was an odd look, and it made me wonder, Who designs this shit? And of course everything was pink. I hate pink, therefore I am not a real woman. (I was once told to my face that I wasn’t a real woman, and it’s surprising how much it hurt, as if I had been born with 2 heads or something. This was back in the ‘70s when I worked at Commerce Clearing House in San Rafael, and a coworker who’d been asked if she and her roommate [an obvious dyke] were lesbians said it was like being called a prostitute. Another coworker was describing someone as “queer,” and I, being newly recruited to the cause [though I never got my toaster], piped up, “I’m queer,” whereupon another coworker friendly to me said, “Oh, Mary, you are not.” I wasn’t sure how to take that, but I knew she meant well. That’s when someone else said, perfectly seriously, that I wasn’t a real woman. Thank God no one around this Bay Area seems to know what dykes look like, because if they did, half the farm women in town would be openly ostracized. I’ve gotten a couple of leers and sneers from men on diner stools, but I easily stare them down. Living here for me is like being an imperialist in a colonial outpost. Because you’ve been exposed to more of the real world than they have, you can culturally lord it over them. So the backwater men here still think they’re at the top of the totem pole, but I can pierce them with my unintimidated gaze like a lean and hungry yon Cassius—or fat and hungry in my case.)


So as I said, they found “something” on the mammogram, so I had to have a biopsy. The surgeon who did it is very well liked (I liked him, too), and my niece said he’s “the best cutter in town.” So I had a sodden thought: If he lived in the Middle East, he could be the best cutter in Qatar. (I swear I’ve heard that name pronounced the same as “cutter,” but the online dictionary claims it rhymes with: afar, ajar, all-star, armoire, and about 150 other words. I include this superfluous information just in case there are any poets out there looking for a rhyme for a small emirate—though it may be easier to use emirate in the first place. Mais non: There are over 400 rhymes for “emirate,” including Watergate, welfare state, and welterweight! I suggest you write about something else.)

The biopsy wasn’t a big deal, but the discharge instructions said I couldn’t lift more than 10 pounds for a few days. Guess who weighs more than 10 pounds each? Fatty McBrutus and Fatty McLuther. Even if I don’t lift them, they’re used to using my body, especially my chest, as an alternative bed-slash-stomping ground. I had to keep shooing them away or trying to hold on to them with only one arm. Try explaining that to a couple of selfish felines. But the excision healed up nicely, and the “something” turned out to be “nothing.”

At the follow-up appointment a week later, nice Dr. Surgeon called me “young lady.” I had vowed to educate the next person (always a man) who called me that in the mistaken belief that I would be flattered by the obvious lie. But it backfired on me. Dr. Surgeon said he was sorry if he offended me (though he was clearly the one who was offended) and that he thought of me as “young”—his last two patients had been 87 and 89. Well, OK. He then suggested that he call me “pleasant lady” because I’m “pleasant.” Was that a dig? By then I wished I had kept my mouth shut. What do you ever get for bucking the system, I ask you?

If you’re still with me, congratulations. You are a real trouper, which is why I’ve always liked you.


[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #27 March 2003

October 3, 2009

a winter’s tale (or two)

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

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

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

I feel guilty when I write this to Barb:

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

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

Do not miss your chance to blow.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Barb also writes:

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

Compared to LaMew, Pookie is a pussy.


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

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

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

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

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

This just in:

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


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

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


Here is Barb’s answer:

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

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

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

Barb replied,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fan mail from some frozen flounder

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

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

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


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

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

Back before I got married I had a margarita experience:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahem. And now for something completely different….

working on my (t)issues in therapy

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

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

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

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

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

[Mary McKenney]

mary‘zine random redux: #34 Winter 2006

August 23, 2009

the late, great Pookie

In memory of Pookie  1987-2005

a cat who thought (and often pooped)
outside the box

Dear Friends,

As most of you know, Pookie has passed over. I had agonized over the decision of what to do and when to do it—hoping in vain that he would die peacefully in his sleep like his predecessor Radar—but when the time came, it was obvious. There was no recovering from end-stage renal failure, and he had lost at least half his weight. Which was considerable. I could see the misery in his eyes.

So I finally faced facts and took him for one last trip to the kindly Dr. V, who gave him the “humane,” dignified end that we do not extend to our fellow humans. You can understand the reasoning there. If euthanasia were legal, you could go to the doctor for a routine physical and come out dead! You’d take your child in for a booster shot, and BAM. Dead kid. No telling what would happen. Better to let people with no hope of recovery suffer unspeakably and long. When my mother was kn-kn-knocking on heaven’s door, I talked to the doctor about “letting her go.” She had a living will and had made it very clear over the years that she didn’t want any extraordinary measures taken to keep her alive. In response to my tentative question about how to go about this final act of mercy, the doctor announced that he wouldn’t help me “kill” her. Then he turned and stalked away.

But I digress. Sort of. It’s true that every new death of someone you love gets strung up on the same line of heartbreak as all the others, whether human or animal. There’s no point questioning your love for a “mere cat” versus your tortured ambivalence about She Who Gave You Life. There’s also little point in reminding yourself (or, more likely, being reminded by those who want to comfort you) that “he/she had a good life.” Yeah, what’s a good life got to do with it. It’s a rough transition all the way around.

But yes, Pookie had a good life, and he survived the Northern USA Jeep Tour of Summer 2004, so don’t cry for him, Argentina. And don’t cry for me. Regrets? I’ve had a few. But we had some good times, me and the Pook Man. The images of his last days are slowly being replaced with memories of earlier milestones. He never wanted to be picked up and held. So one day I started a campaign to pick him up several times a day and then put him down the second he struggled. This regimen seemed to have little effect, until one day I was sitting at my desk, and I saw a tentative little paw reach up to my chair. Pookie had finally realized that I was going to respect his limits. The big lug made himself comfortable on my lap, and that’s where he spent a good part of his days thereafter.

However, in the midst of death comes… you know what… that perpetual renewal of innocence and love and hope that refuses to believe in its own eventual demise…. that relentless, miraculous cycle of the seasons and generations… that crazy engine that fuels us all… Life! Introducing…

a tale of two kitties

One of the highlights of my summer was when my friends P&C came to visit me from Oregon. P had been here before (she drove one leg of the Jeep Tour, if you recall), but C hadn’t. They were my first visitors from my “other” life. I had a great time showing off my big house and some of my childhood landmarks—houses where I had lived on North Shore Drive and Bay de Noc Road; the sparkling blue water of the bay off Lake Michigan; the marina swimming with boats; the 1940s feel of factories, smokestacks, and unidentifiable structures that make up the shipyards and paper mills; more water as the river merges into the bay of one of our Greatest Lakes; the woods and farmland of my youth, much of it long since invaded by developers—and, of course, Henes Park, with its groves of trees, sandy beach, and distant view of Door County, Wis., on the other side of the water.

The three of us had a great time hanging out and driving around. We even drove up to Escanaba along the same shoreline immortalized in the James Stewart movie “Anatomy of a Murder.” Of course we joined the gang for Friday night fish fry at Pat & Rayleen’s, where I felt absurdly proud to introduce my friends to this boisterous sea of humanity that I now call home. The place was jumpin’, as it always is on Fridays. The scene is like a teen hangout, except most of the customers were teens in the ‘50s. These are your factory workers and waitresses, not your doctors and lawyers. God knows where they eat. It took me a long time to realize that these truly are my people, and that there’s more to them than their jobs or the stereotype of the pale-faced, a-few-extra-pounds-around-their-middle American.

At K and MP’s house later, we played cards and laughed our heads off. P and MP really hit it off, so they were slinging wisecracks back and forth, and we all agreed it was the most we’d laughed in a long time. Again, I felt proud of both my friends and my family, and a little incredulous to see two of my worlds meet with such a great outcome (“fantasy colliding with destiny,” as the Chron horoscope used to say).

On Saturday morning, P&C got up very early to make the round of rummage sales with K and Barb, while I slept in. A few hours later, P came in and asked for a box and a blanket. “What for?”, I asked, though I already had a suspicion. Of the cats I’ve had in my adult life, only one did not come from P. She has a kind of animal magnetism (sorry) that attracts the stray, the abandoned, the abused. And guess who she goes to first with each new-found foundling? Years ago, she found Radar in a ditch, and she got Pookie from her sister, who had rescued him from a cat-hating neighbor.

Sure enough, P and C had gone for a walk around Henes Park and had found two little gray kittens playing on some rocks on the bay side.

So we gathered some supplies, including some leftover chicken and bacon to use as bait, and I drove her over to the park, where C was keeping watch. It immediately started to rain, and the kittens scurried into a hole under the rocks. Drizzle turned to downpour. After getting no help from animal control (not working on the weekend) or the police (“nothing we can do”), P—who is not known for her patience in other circumstances, such as while driving or working on a computer—sat hunched in the rain for more than an hour, talking infinitely tenderly to the frightened felines and finally coaxing them out.


We put the kittens in the downstairs bedroom, as far away from Pookie as possible. I called Barb to see if she knew someone who would want a pair of adorable, soft, shimmery all-gray kittens with faint stripes on their tails. But I could already feel my resolve melting. I wanted to spare Pookie the indignity of having to share his final days on Earth with these “fuzzy grey intruders,” as Susan L has dubbed them. But the more I watched them chase and tumble over each other—so sweet, so innocent, so ungrateful for their rescue (they just thought they were having a day at the beach)—the more I became convinced that it was Fate. I was going to keep them.

For several weeks, their innocent joy permeated the entire house, except for about a two-foot radius around Pookie. I had given him his own room so he wouldn’t have to go up and down the stairs, but I didn’t want to close him off entirely. So with the natural boundary violations of the young, the kittens used his litter box, drank his water, and ate his food while he sat hunched on a table by the window glaring at them and occasionally throwing me a baleful glance. It was written all over his face: “How could you?”

But eventually the tension eased. One day I found the three cats curled up on my bed, cheek to cheek to cheek. I wasn’t quite sure what it meant—did the kittens invade Pookie’s space and curl up with him, making him look like a willing participant? When he woke up, his expression was a little like that of a soldier taken hostage in a foreign land and being forced to pose with his captors to convince the Americans that he is being well treated. Pookie wasn’t holding up a newspaper showing today’s date, but I could have sworn he was extending his middle claw in imitation of the U.S. soldier’s classic expression of “Don’t believe them—I am being treated like an animal!”

It took a while to decide what to call the new arrivals: Fred and Barney, Cisco and Pancho, Ranger and Tonto? My first choice for one of them was actually Cisco, for San Francisco, but for some reason I kept saying Costco. That simply would not do. Costco and WalMart? Shopko and Target? Finally, I settled on Luther and Brutus—Luther because… I’m not sure… and Brutus because I wanted to be able to croon, “Et tu, Bru-TAY? Et tu? Et tu?”

Of course, to this day, I keep coming up with names I should have given them: Lost and Found… Ruff and Tumble… Yin and Yang. Caesar and Brutus would be a better pairing than bringing poor old Martin Luther into it, though I wouldn’t have wanted Brutus to actually slay Caesar if they somehow managed to live up to their names. (When I told 9-year-old Summer that I had considered calling one of the kittens Caesar, she exclaimed, disbelieving, “Like the salad?”)

In a land of Fluffies and Mittens, Brutus and Luther do seem like rather grandiose names, but I already did the “cute” thing with Pookie, and I was willing to overcompensate. At this point, I could easily rename Brutus “J.D.” for “juvenile delinquent,” because he gets into trouble 99% of the time he’s awake. Luther, on the other hand, is a real peacenik. I don’t think he’s going to start a new religion, but he’s calm and rather saintly, if I may be permitted to borrow that most un-Lutheran-like term.

Anyway, it doesn’t really matter… they both think their name is Sweetie Pie.

Remember when I wrote about my two-tigers-on-the-roof dream? I thought it meant that some unknown direction was going to manifest for me. I have to admit, it has occurred to me that the tigers were the harbingers of these two furry sweethearts. But that would be really shallow and literal, wouldn’t it?… even though I could totally see Luther lying placidly on the top of the roof while Brutus breathed down my neck with diabolical thoughts about how close I was to the edge.


Pookie and one of the young whippersnappers (it was months before I could tell them apart)

I never knew if Pookie grew to like having Brutus and Luther around, or if he just resigned himself to the inevitable. But he didn’t have to sleep on the bed with the rest of us, and he didn’t have to let them drape themselves over him. On the other hand, he wasn’t always in the mood for their antics. When Brutus would play-attack him, Pookie would often buy time by holding him down and licking his head while he tried to remember his anatomy. “Let’s see, the carotid artery is…. yes!” CHOMP. The kittens were not at all deterred by this tough older-brother love.

I have to admit that the kittens helped me push Pookie’s encroaching mortality to the back of my mind. Youth and beauty are so seductive—a great distraction from death. Their siren song is the clean slate, the fresh start, the illusion of forever-young. The kittens always smell fresh and clean, no matter what mischief they’ve been up to. They have no blemishes, no warts ‘n’ all, no existential angst, no baggage, no childhood trauma. They are so not me! And so not Pookie! The kittens embodied the illusion that there is always a fresh start, and I received that lie gratefully. I didn’t yet have to face their loss… though I would look at Luther stretched out in my arms, his head flung back, his eyes closed, his mouth turned up in a permanent smile, purring like mad while I stroked his soft tummy… and he would open his black-and-rootbeer-colored eyes to gaze at me from the depths of animality, as if wordlessly conveying the wisdom of the ancient pharaohs(’cats)… and my heart would sink as I realized, these two shall pass.

When I relayed this touching thought to K—that their deaths would bring me the same sorrow I was experiencing with Pookie—she hesitated for a second and then said, “Not necessarily.” I didn’t know what she meant at first. Then I did the math. Oh. You mean, if they live to be as old as Pookie, I’ll be as old as Methuselah, or (more likely) dead and gone? Wow. That had never occurred to me. I guess I thought that the key to immortality was always getting a new cat after the old one died, because everyone knows humans outlive their pets.

The love of the young and the innocent is easy, rewarding, and fun—while the love of the old, the oily, the flaky, and the grumpy is shot through with pain. But when I let myself stroke Pookie’s head and feel the pain of loving that which is not eternal…. I felt how precious it is to experience the love of the imperfect, and the pain of the loss to come. It digs deeper into the heart, clawing at our wish to avoid the reality of death and loss. We had a history, Pookie and I. There wasn’t always perfect communication between us, but when is that ever true in a relationship? I miss him so much.




pookie’s goodbye

hello dear friends, and goodbye.

as you may know, i’ve been sick for quite a while… and now it’s time to go.

i’ve had a good life, especially the past year in this nice, quiet place called Menomimeow or something like that.

and so, if you’ll indulge me… [clears throat]…

and now, the end is near;

and so i face the final curtain

my friend, i’ll say it clear,

i’ll state my case, of which i’m certain.

i’ve lived a life that’s full,

i’ve traveled each and ev’ry highway;

and more, much more than this,

i did it my way.

regrets, i’ve had a few;

but then again, too few to mention

i did what i had to do

and saw it through without exemption.

yes, there were times, i’m sure you knew

when i bit off more than i could chew.

but through it all, when there was doubt

i ate it up and spit it out.

i faced it all and i stood tall

and did it my way

i’ve loved, i’ve laughed and cried.

i’ve had my fill; my share of losing.

and now, as tears subside,

i find it all so amusing.

to think i did all that.

and may i say – not in a shy way,

no, oh no not me,

i did it myyyyyyyy…  wayyyyyyy.

thank you, thank you.

pookie has left the building.

remember…  that which is never born can never die.

love always,





the obligatory cute cat stories

The new kitties are the light of my life. Also, they are often the pain of my ass.

It goes without saying that they are impossibly cute. They both retrieve whatever I throw for them—wadded-up Trident gum wrappers, caps from water bottles, stray items they’ve liberated from my sand tray collection (a little green plastic soldier, a gray rhinoceros)—and will bring the retrieved object back and drop it at my feet to throw again and again. I’ll be sitting barefoot at my desk, and I’ll feel something soft pushing at my foot. I’ll lift up my big toe, and a furry paw will push a gum wrapper underneath it. If I’m downstairs, they’ll bring me water bottle caps to throw, because they make a satisfying noise on the slick linoleum kitchen floor. When the cap goes skittering across the floor, the two cats slide after it on their “stocking feet” and slam into the cupboards on the other side.

For the most part, Brutus is the action figure, and Luther is the watcher. Along with pieces of paper and fluff and the odd styrofoam peanut, they have lots of toys, including a carpet-covered “teepee” I bought for Pookie years ago that he never used. (I had wildly underestimated his size—he couldn’t even fit his head in the door.) Until they too outgrew it, Brutus and Luther loved playing in and on it. Late one night, Brutus was in the teepee going wild, while Luther sat watching him (or rather, watching the teepee). Brutus managed to hump the teepee all over the floor (from inside, mind you), and then occasionally he’d stop and stick his paws out from underneath, trying in vain to get Luther to play along. Then there was more teepee humping by the invisible hand of Brutus. Finally, he gave up on the paws and lay on his back and stuck his whole head under the teepee and gazed up at Luther, thinking, I’m sure, that that major effort would be enough to entice his brother to join in. It was not.

Then there was the Washing Machine Caper. Brutus will get into anything that’s normally closed but suddenly reveals an entry point—cupboards and closets, the dishwasher, the refrigerator, the toilet, the shower, the freezer (I have witnesses), the dryer, the washing machine. One day I’m trying to get the wet clothes into the dryer while keeping Brutus from climbing in with them. Put clothes in, take cat out, put clothes in, take cat out. Finally, all the clothes are in, but suddenly I don’t see Brutus anymore. Did he succeed in getting into the dryer? No. Then I hear something jingling. It’s one of their long-lost jingle balls. It’s coming from behind the washing machine. Oh-oh. I spend the next 10 minutes trying to coax Brutus out of there. Luther tries to help by sticking his arm between the washing machine and the wall and stretching as far as he can (which is not far). There’s a long silence. Finally, I hear some frantic scrabbling, and Brutus’s head appears over the back of the washing machine. He’s barely hanging on, and his little face is contorted like he’s lifting 1,000 pound weights. I carefully reach back there and grab him under his armpits and pull. Rescue is successful, and he lives to caper another day.

I paint, therefore… ?

Seeker to guru: “Is there life after death?”
Guru, “Who’s asking?”

Intuitive painting is paradoxical. You paint what you “feel,” but feeling is not what it’s about. What you feel is, at best, a tiny window in a door with no sign to identify it. You can call painting a doorway, but the room it opens onto has no walls, no floor, and no “you” once you enter.

So how do you know when you’re there? You think you know. You associate “connection”—being there—with feeling spacey, blissed-out, like you could stand there forever painting red dots or black lines. You may feel like you’re painting on snakeskin instead of paper. Images can come while you’re making other plans. The brush in your hand boldly goes where the mind cannot follow. But you have enough mind left to assess the situation, and you think: Aha! I’m there!

So naturally, when you’re feeling something else—stuck, stupid, or sleepy—you think you are not in that room, you can never get there, you have been denied access, you have dropped the key down the drain. You could stand there forever enumerating all the horrible things you are and are not, things you cannot do—except the teacher wants you to keep going. It’s as if you’ve come to the edge of a cliff, you’re afraid to look down, and someone says, “Just keep walking straight ahead, you’re fine.” But there is no ground beneath your feet and, to be sure, no wings either. How can you keep going when you have nothing, are nothing? Paint goes on the paper, but it means nothing. You have abandoned all hope, ye who have entered here. You ask the teacher, “Will I live through this?” and she replies, “Who’s asking?”

Then time somehow disappears, and the teacher comes by again and peers into your face. (She barely glances at the painting.) You register that she’s there, but before you can open your bag of sorrows, she says, “You’re beaming!” And you realize, yes, how strange, I’m not just smiling, I’m beaming. But how can that be, I’m not even aware of feeling anything, let alone anything that warrants this sort of facial reaction. I vaguely remember complaining about nothing, but this is different: There is no nothing, and there is no anything. There is no everything! And I feel great!

Some version of this mysterious transformation happens every time I paint, which is why I keep going back to it, over the protests of my rational mind. So…. in December I braved the snow, the rain, and the tiny airplane seats once again to attend a 7-day painting intensive at the Painting Studio in San Francisco.

As always, painting was a mystery from day to day… and this time the biggest mystery was, “Why isn’t it giving me anything?” In the sharings I didn’t have that OH MY GOD THIS IS INCREDIBLE sense of being One With All That Exists. I didn’t go out into the world at the end of the day and have surprising encounters with strangers or be struck by odd insights and metaphors. I didn’t feel STONED.

Back when I started painting, I remember most of the sharings being dominated by people (including me) saying things like, “Well, first I painted blue… then I painted red. Then I felt like painting black, so I did.” In this intensive, I noticed that the younger people did the same thing, except it was more along the lines of “First, I felt terrible, then I felt better, and now I’m afraid I’ll feel terrible again tomorrow.”

It occurs to me that the painting process unfolds as a more or less consecutive fascination with (a) color, (b) feelings, (c) God, and (d-z) _____(?). I feel like I’m standing at the edge of the cliff of (d). Which is not to say that I’m beyond God—au contraire! I’m just saying that conventional images of the Unknown, while very powerful, are not the thing, or the no-thing, itself. “God” is a continuing mystery, not a symbol or a destination. And painting keeps pulling us deeper into that mystery… a kind of spiritual archeology.

The only hint of the STONED feeling was one night when I was driving Terry back to the flat she was staying in and I had the sensation of wanting to sail straight through a red light. It would be a beautiful ride, I thought, on that brilliant red beam. Of course, I caught myself in time, but it freaked T out. She’d holler “RED MEANS STOP!” whenever another red light was coming up, but by then I was over that, I was going to stop for it, but I wanted to stop in the space between the two crosswalks, which would be in the middle of the intersection. “Ha ha,” I said to T when I explained this latest impulse, but I don’t think she appreciated that one either. After I dropped her off, I turned right onto Bush St. and was startled to see four lanes of headlights coming toward me. Oops, one way, wrong way. But despite the slight mental confusion, I was able to slam into reverse and back up and around the corner like a pro.

It was odd, because I drove all the hell over the Bay Area that week—S.F., East Bay, Marin—and felt supremely body-confident in my abilities at all times. When T was with me, I admit she did save me from a few tiny mistakes, such as not seeing a pedestrian in a crosswalk (when I was inching forward from a full stop, craning my neck the other way to see the traffic amid the chaos which is Mission St.). To take the edge off T’s possible imminent panic attack, I joked about what I’d say if I ran over somebody. “Oops! Oopee!” We laughed. For me, it was gallows humor. For T, I think, it was a lot more gallows than humor.

See, now you’re getting the wrong impression. I probably shouldn’t have said anything. But the proof is in the absolute 0 fatalities caused by me.

I have always had something to say about painting. I probably know as much about this kind of painting as anyone. I’ve been writing and talking about my experiences with this process for 26 years. The mary’zine came directly out of the writings I used to share with fellow painters. I wrote a book called Who Paints? which was rejected by Jeremy Tarcher because it wasn’t “how-to“ enough. Actually, it wasn’t “how-to” because there is no “how-to.” I’ve always tried to describe the what and speculate about the why, but how is the question on everyone’s lips.

This time I wasn’t able to identify or articulate anything that was happening to me. I had very little to say in the sharings, other than “I don’t know what happened!” I’m used to knowing (or thinking I know) exactly what I’m feeling, in great detail. But on the last day, I’m sitting there blubbering hot tears, and all I can say is, “I DON’T KNOW! I have no oPINion!”

When I got back home, BK and I had a couple of long phone conversations. I was troubled by this new development. I thought painting had taken me “somewhere,” but I had no clue where. I had no log or memory of my experience. And what good is experience if there’s no one there (meaning me) to experience it? If the guru says to you, “Yes, there’s life after death, but the ‘you’ as you know you won’t be there,” is that going to be comforting? I think not.

I asked B, “What’s the point? I spent 7 days painting and I’m left with nothing, no insight, no feeling, no words. How am I supposed to write about it? I can’t just write ‘I don’t know’! Is this where I’m headed, to have not only words but actual experience taken from me? What’s the point of nothing?” As we talked, I thought of Archimedes, the ancient Greek who discovered the lever: “Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I’ll move the world,” he said. Uh huh. That’s what all of us are looking for: a place to stand outside the world of our own lives so we can be a witness to our existence. By definition, Archimedes can’t stand outside the world or outside himself. “I don’t mind dying,” some part of us says, “but I want to stay and watch the funeral.” The mind is all about being included. We want to have a division of labor between the observer and the observed. All those stories of near-deaths when people report looking down on their own bodies on the operating table help us believe in a hierarchy of Self… an ordinary self (one for daytime, a somewhat fancier one for evening)… a higher self… a self who will survive death… and, of course, ultimately… the self we call “God”—the supreme version of our self, in whose image we are made (because we have made him and us ourselves) and with whom we will live out eternity in the best of both worlds, like a very grand version of a performer standing on stage basking in the adoration of the multitudes. If the world consisted only of our self and other parts of our self watching our self, what a wonderful world this would be!

To put this nutty idea in a nutshell: I want to be One with Everything yet remain conscious, self-aware, separate, individual, a body and mind with a name, thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Over the years I’ve learned to give up the product or “result”—the look of the painting—for the process—the intuitive trust in following what comes to me. But what if I have to give up the process, too? If the process replaces the result (as in, “I feel different and spacey, so I know I’m in process”) then how is it process anymore? I thought giving up the look of the painting was the whole sacrifice. I didn’t know that I continually make process into result and don’t need paint and paper to do it. Like turning wheat into chaff or gold into lead, I’m a master at reverse alchemy. I mean, not just me, but virtually everyone who gets to (d) on the Painting Progressometer. But of course the Progressometer is just in my head, no more real than my thin air beyond the cliff analogy.

When I was painting and not knowing what was happening, “I” was not there. And “I” did not wake up with a feather on my pillow to prove that my dream of connection had really happened. Some people make bargains with their loved ones: “Whoever dies first, let’s have a signal so the ‘living’ one will know the ‘dead’ one is still there.” I often wonder if, every time I wake up from a dream, I’ve “died” to the other people in the dream, and any deal I might have made with them to drop a feather or ring a bell becomes moot because I don’t remember them and they never existed anyway! What if that’s the knowledge we wake up (die) to? We cannot let go! We must be here forever, even if there’s no here here! Krishnamurti said, “Death does not matter,” and how could it, if we are “that which is never born and thus can never die”? We are so tied to the person we think ourselves to be, to the world we believe we inhabit, like Shakespeare’s players upon a stage. Have we learned nothing from a century of post-Newtonian physics? What we see is not what we get! We aren’t really living on a ball suspended in midair! Space is not empty, people! There are waves! Black and white holes! Cosmic worm buses! Curvy space and no time to speak of! Dimensions beyond our ability to perceive them!

I was not at all unhappy to leave the big city behind and return to my l’il piece of small town America. As attracted as I am to the restaurants, bookstores, and progressive radio stations of the Bay Area, you can’t beat a little retreat on the shores of Lake Michigan for natural beauty and sheer livability.

My first encounter with the locals after arriving back in town was with a man outside the post office. He got to the door first and opened it for me, saying, “Here you go, Pops.” I went in, sort of laughing, sort of cringing, and said, “Thanks.” From behind me I heard, “Or ‘Grandma’, as the case may be… Your voice gave you away!” I confirmed that “Grandma is more likely.” He scattered “sorry”s in my wake as I went inside. When I was done with my brief errand and started to leave, he was at the door again and again opened it for me. I asked what he was going to call me this time. He was still flustered, and mumbled something about “the 21st century” and how he “can’t tell [men from women] anymore.” Are we supposed to wear our vaginas on our sleeves now? I told him it was OK, I get that a lot—”But at least I usually get ‘Sir’—not ‘Pops’.” I was perfectly good-humored about it, but I’m not sure he could tell. Deadpan Mary. He was especially confused because, thinking I was a younger man, he had called me “Pops” to teasingly imply that I was older than him so needed the door opened for me (he looked like “Dr. Zhivago Moves to the U.P. and Feels Right at Home,” so I couldn’t tell how old he was). As I walked off to my car, he trailed a few “thank you”s behind me and said, “Some people don’t communicate so well.” I felt bad for him. I said, “Thank YOU” but later I wished I had said something a little more straightforward, like “Thanks for apologizing, but it’s really OK. I appreciate the effort.” I think he did communicate well, if communication is getting across to a stranger that you’re sorry, confused, tongue-tied, or just plain overwhelmed by the changing times. Most people wouldn’t bother. See how complicated ordinary life can be?

Yes, the Bay Area is muy beautiful. But not even the view of the Golden Gate Bridge with the fog coming in beats the view out my “loft” window. It’s winter now, so it’s mostly monochromatic—gray, black, white—with touches of color: swaths of pink and orange at sunset, and every possible shade of blue on a sunny day. Walking around the park the other day, I sang to myself, “Monochro-o-ome, you bring us such nice… stark colors, I want to take a pho-o-tograph, oh Mama don’t take… my monochrome away….” (If you don’t know what song I’m referring to, you’re way too young to be reading this.)

Someone builds rock “sculptures” all through the park—rocks piled in artistic and physically improbable ways. I think someone else comes along and knocks them over, but the rock-artist is not deterred. OK, so s/he’s not Andy Goldsworthy or even Christo, but I love the shapes of the peaked piles sitting there all un-naturely-like right next to nature and made of nature.

On the bay side are snow drifts piled up along the shoreline, then a frozen band of ice with snowmobile tracks on it, then the dark blue water in the distance. The land curves almost back on itself from the center of town, so I can look south and see a couple of tall smokestacks, a church spire, and a historic Michigan lighthouse. It would be pointless to compare this view with the view of San Francisco as you come out of the Waldo tunnel, but I think a great heart view trumps a great eye view.

Whenever I drive up M-35, along the same route I walked to get to kindergarten and first grade back in the long-ago, I feel a strong tug deep in my abdomen, as if I’m being pulled down by the great magnet of land and memory. I have as many bad memories as good ones associated with that stretch of road—like the retarded, adult-sized boy who stood in the path of little kids who were trying to pass by on their way to school (me) and roared like a monster and tried to grab them (me)—but they’ve been coalesced and compacted, like compost or dinosaur sludge. At this point, they’re part of the earth’s crust. How much crust does 59 years make, as compared to millennia? Anyway, it’s all part of the marytime history of this place, and when I say I feel grounded, I really mean it.

the U.P. in the media (an occasional feature)

The stats won’t support the theory, but don’t some parts of the country just seem more conducive to murder? Michigan’s cold and remote Upper Peninsula comes to my mind….
—Marilyn Stasio, in the
New York Times Book Review

I’m all about “cold and remote” these days, and yet, strangely, I have no immediate plans to murder anyone! Wisconsin, on the other hand, seems rife with baby-throwers-out-of-cars and wife-killing suicide-committers. And of course the worst crime of all (as spelled out on a huge billboard across from Lloyd’s factory): “A baby does not CHOOSE to DIE,” with a big cute face of a 2- or 3-month-old. If it was going to be born to the people who would later throw it out of a car, it might think twice. It would be interesting to see a billboard of an enlarged bit of tissue with the motto, “A cell does not CHOOSE to DIE.” But actually, it totally does; it’s called apoptosis; and a very large percentage of would-be fetuses are naturally aborted in the first trimester. Did GOD ask THEM if they CHOSE to DIE?

Just down the road is another billboard with a huge image of Jesus in his blonde, blue-eyed form and the slogan “JESUS LOVES YOU.” Strangely, he’s looking off to the side, not at ME at all. OK, now I have to tell all my billboard stories. One that I’ve mentioned before is the handmade “Jesus Is Lord Over Menominee County.” There’s one on the road we used to live on and another one on M-35 heading north out of town. That one now has “Over Menominee County” painted out. Is someone saying that Jesus is NOT Lord here? I mean, what’s wrong with “Pray globally, proselytize locally”?

[bloody hell! sometimes I hate the sodding interwebs! … oh… now it’s fixed… never mind!]

faulty remembrance of things past (was it a madeleine? a chocolate chip cookie? or just a stale piece of toast?)

It’s disconcerting, when you think you have every moment of your childhood emblazoned on the All About Me scrapbook of your mind, to run into people you cannot remember whatsoever. One day K, MP, Barb and I were leaving Mickey-Lu’s (have I told you about their flame-broiled burgers with flame-toasted bun, pickles and ketchup, plus a pat of butter, all wrapped in white butcher paper and plunked down on your little table or booth? Mmmmm…… Mickey-Lu’s) and a woman excitedly called out to us, “Is that MARY?” Oh shit. I backtracked, looked her over, couldn’t place her or the older woman with her. K said, “You remember Sharon A. and her mother? They used to come over to see Mom and Dad, and you and Sharon played together.” I wracked my brain. I could not tell a lie. (I could not think of one.) “Uhhhh….. no, I’m sorry.” So Sharon, her smile dimming noticeably, and K and Barb regaled me with details of that apparently unforgettable friendship. “I’m sorry, my memory is good but it’s short!” (When in doubt, rely on a proven platitude.) Then, idiotically, I say, “But it’s nice to see you…. again….” Shit. I couldn’t understand how K and Barb, 6 and 8 years younger than me, could remember these people so vividly when I had never even heard their names before. I vowed that if that sort of thing happened again, I’d fake it.

Recently, I got my chance. I got a UPS delivery one day, and the driver hesitated before handing over the package. Finally, he said, “Do you remember me?… We graduated together.” Oh shit. I take a stab in the dark. “Uh … Don ….?” No. “Tom Cort,” he says. The memory of the disappointed if not crushed Sharon A. flashes through my mind. “Oh yeah! Hi!” and I even give him a little hug to cover the lie that is probably neon-lighting up my face. He said he had recognized my name on the package and thought, “Could it be…?” And I’m thinking, how would he know me if I didn’t know him? I thought I was completely invisible in high school! “Nice to see you again!,” I exclaim, with way too much enthusiasm in my lying voice.

It occurs to me that I should stop seeing myself as a stranger in a familiar land, but, frankly, I don’t want to give that up. Every sense is heightened when you’re continually pinballed between the past and the present and the strange chemical mixture of the two. (Chemical pinball. You’ve never played?)

I wonder if there’s a science fiction book or movie out there with the premise that… OK, I’m thinking along the lines of Gulliver’s Travels, in which Gulliver is tied down by the tiny Lilliputians. Let’s say a friendly giant comes along to help some l’il townspeople with their quilting bee, and suddenly s/he finds herself woven into the fabric of their lives—literally. They display the completed quilt proudly in the town square, and if you look very closely, you’ll see the outline of our giant practically indistinguishable from the threads and crazy-quilt patches of the rest of the design.

If physicists can have a string theory, I can have a thread theory.

Like my reimagined Gulliver, I’m slowly becoming embedded in the fabric of my family. We have our Friday night get-togethers, our drop-bys, our holidays. I don’t get to see the little ones that often—everyone works full-time or goes to school, so contact is sporadic. It’s a lesson in taking the long view.

Belatedly, I want to tell you about an e-mail I got from Maria of NM last summer. She had been reading an article by Garrison Keillor (Prairie Home Companion) and he mentioned how interesting it is to listen to small-town radio stations in the Midwest. He gave as an example, “Barb calls in to say thanks to everyone, Pookie has been found.” Maria was all excited, thinking it must have been my Barb and my Pookie. But no, there are apparently parallel Midwestern universes out there, where Barbs and Pookies and Mares live out their lives in blissful ignorance of other dimensions of being. In fact, they live as you and I do… with strained comprehension, arbitarily exercised compassion, magnets pulling this way and that, and memories good but short.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #35 September 2008

August 9, 2009

Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice. (If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.)
—Michigan state motto

Well, the pressure finally got to me. I’ve been hounded, begged, flattered, and cajoled to bring back the mary’zine. OK, I may be exaggerating just a bit. But when I tried to explain to J.M. of Fairfax, Calif., that it has to be fun for me, she cried, “But you’ve left the rest of us in a sucky void!” It’s not that I lost interest in writing. But once I made the move from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Green Bay Area, my mission seemed to change. No longer was it enough to riff on the odd theory about the universe, describe humorous or poignant encounters at the grocery store, or rant about bicyclists’ wanting to be treated like regular traffic except when they run stop signs or ride in front of you at 9 miles an hour. I felt I had to do more… describe my change of circumstances in terms both humorous and grand… tell pithy anecdotes with an underpinning of profundity… relay hilarious but respectful tales of family life. Could I be happy and still write with the soul and wit of a born critic? Could I convey the joy of a semi-retirement spent in solitary refinement: reading… watching movies… listening to music and radio talk… playing and napping with two sweet balls of purr? Could I—should I—have blogs of things to say about the election or Darfur or the environment? (Jellyfish are washing up on the beaches of Spain: We are doomed!) Should I have important observations to share about the U.P., or at least the south U.P. (SoU.P.)? It all became Too Important, and I lost the gift of having fun with it.

I may have been reacting to the disapproval of one of my spiritual mentors (for lack of a better term) who was alarmed at my saying that I’m happy here and have “nothing left to prove.” Truly, I’m done striving—not that I was ever much of a striver to begin with. (I merely floated to the top.) He thought that the mary’zine should consist of more than “things that [I] ‘think’ will ‘amuse’ people.” He seemed to be worried that, having moved to the culturally and intellectually moribund Midwest, I had become dull and complacent—had left my brain, if not my heart, in San Francisco. Yes, God forbid anyone should actually enjoy life. One must seek but never find. He even thought that my plan to make copper and found-art objets, perhaps to hang in the trees in my back yard, was “a copout”—a copout from what, I don’t know.

I have disappointed so many people in my life.

•    Mr. E., 9th grade English teacher, who, during a locker inspection, discovered I was reading a paperback adaptation of “Leave It to Beaver” (OK, that’s pretty bad, but I was yet to discover Catcher in the Rye and become a literary snob);

•    Miss W., 12th grade English teacher, who generally adored me but wasn’t pleased with my irreverent take on Shakespeare’s 400th birthday—a poster with the punchline, “My what’s-its-name, my what’s-its-name, my kingdom for a what’s-its-name”—something to do with Richard III and a contest to name a horse (OK, that was pretty bad, too);

•    Dr. R., director of the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Michigan, who almost fired me for writing “SUPPORT BAM” [Black Action Movement] on my timesheet in large block letters; he was incredulous—“We have to keep these timesheets in the files for YEARS!”;

•    Fellow socialists at a college in Maryland who thought it was a crime against the Revolution to play solitaire or sew a Grateful Dead patch on one’s jeans; they didn’t even approve of psychology.

To the literary people, I was too low-brow; to the political people, I was too frivolous; to the scholars, I lacked ambition; to the artists, I was uncool; to the authorities, I questioned too much; to the spiritual seekers, I was too complacent. While riding on the back of the tandem bicycle of Life, I have never, apparently, done my fair share of pedaling. Well, I say this: It has taken me a long, long time to realize that I can make my own decisions about how to live my life. As for the tandem bicycle, Life has control over the handlebars that actually steer the thing; mine are just for holding on.

And maybe it’s the peaceful environment I now find myself in; maybe it’s having become a sexagenarian…. but I’m just happy—that untoward, somewhat embarrassing H-word. Like my mentor, you may be thinking, “How dare she! With the world in the state it’s in! She has given up! She must be asleep… her vestigial brain cells are rotting from self-absorption, inaction and lack of stimulation!” So, yeah, I’m fat-and-happy and I have all the downside quirks of my personality that I ever had, maybe more, but the good news is… I don’t care so much. If loving my life is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

So… (finally, she begins…) It’s been a quiet year-and-a-half in Menominee, Michigan, my hometown. After moving to this north central middle American upper peninsular small town 4 years ago, my transformation from Westcoaster to Midwester is complete. I knew this for sure when I went online to iTunes and downloaded “The Beer Barrel Polka.” [I’m not kidding]

Illusions? I always knew I’d lose a few after I settled in, but I didn’t know which, how, or when. My most profound delusion was that I would become an entirely different person—involved, friendly, sociable. Hiding out in my condo in San Rafael, I thought I was just avoiding the rowdy neighbors, parking lot rappers, and midnight crazies. But here too I peer out the window before going out on the front porch to get my mail. Some days I don’t go out at all, or if I do, I back my Jeep stealthily out of the garage like Dick Cheney emerging from his undisclosed location. I avoid making eye contact with neighbors or passers-by, unless they wave or say hello first.

So I’m the neighborhood riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, and no one comes a-knockin’ for a cup of sugar. Which suits me fine. I’m happy as a clam up in here, with my kitties and my lifeline to the greater world, the Internet. It’s like living in my own personal biodome, or biosphere, or whatever they called that underground experiment in the ‘70s where people lived without natural light and discovered their biorhythms without external cues. I sleep irregular hours, often in my big red chair, with one kitty on my lap and the other curled at my feet. I usually stay up most of the night, reading, listening to music, or wading on the Internet (never learned to surf). My favorite times are when I’m still awake at 6:30 a.m. when Schloegel’s opens, and I can sit in a booth by the big windows, with my coffee and scrambled eggs, watching the sun come up over the bay. But then I always wish that I had slept, so I could start my day in the bright sparkling morning.

My quasi-hermit life has changed somewhat since I hired Paul to put up new siding on my house. Paul is that rare contractor who is dependable, agreeable, and a perfectionist. He’s done several jobs for me, including replacing my roof, blowing insulation into the attic, and installing a skylight in the old attic room that I’ve painted in a wild and crazy fashion.

That’s Brutus on top of the world/cat tree.

Paul and his helper Bob, two old guys (I say “old”: they’re both younger than me), along with Bob’s son-in-law Joe, have been working on the siding 7 days a week for several weeks now. They just finished on Labor Day, and my house is now the shining star of the neighborhood. I’ve gotten used to having them around—sawing, pounding, walking on the roof, coming in to use the bathroom and get a Mountain Dew. Bob is fond of saying, “Whatever makes you happy….” He’s done several things for me that weren’t strictly in the job description, like clearing out the weeds and old bottles from under my back deck. All the guys have day jobs: Paul and Joe work in factories, and Bob is a city worker in charge of the parks. But they come straight from work to spend another 4 or 5 hours working on my house on weekdays, plus all day on the weekends.

The three of them are always joking around, and I enjoy contributing to the banter. I have a mild fantasy of hanging out with them off the job site, so to speak. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but men are so refreshing sometimes, in their willingness to be playful. Bob likes to tell stories, some of which are of questionable truthiness. He told me he used to lend money to his friends and charge them 100% interest. So he’d lend this one guy $400, and the next month the guy would pay him back $800. But then the guy would borrow another $400, so Bob figures he wasn’t really making any money from it. I’m sorry, but wouldn’t he be making $400 a month? I have a feeling I’m not meant to scrutinize these stories too closely. (My contrary nature makes me get all jokey when people are serious and require documentation when they’re trying to be funny.)

Because the guys are out in the yard or up on ladders all the time, they get to do the meet-and-greet with curious neighbors and passers-by, including an old (see above) guy named Stan who comes by now and then. One day Stan asks Bob, “Is the woman who lives here married?” Bob says, “I don’t know, I’ve never seen her husband.” Stan says, “Maybe I oughta get together with her!” Yeah, right. Make a new plan, Stan….

Dozens of people so far have exclaimed how beautiful my house is now—it’s sage green, in a town where most buildings are white, gray, or beige. I’m so proud of my color sense. Also, I say fie on George Bush’s economic stimulus package. When I got my $600 check, it felt like pocket change. I’ve stimulated the local economy by putting $25,000+ into the siding, lights, metal soffits, painted railings, stained deck, (red!) doors, and a new driveway. It’s like that Citgo commercial, where “Bob” eats at “Tom’s” restaurant, so “Tom” can get his car fixed at “John’s” garage and “John” can get gas at “Bob’s” gas station. In a small town like this, I can see my California-gotten gains making a real difference to local people and businesses.

I did accidentally meet the woman across the street whom I’ve studiously avoided since she and her husband and baby moved in 3 years ago. I’m just so awkward with casual yard-to-yard relationships. When are you expected to wave, and when can you just go about your business? Do you wait for them to look up from their lawn mowers, or do you tramp over there with a plate of cookies and an earnest query about the wife and grandkids? I really blew it by not introducing myself to the neighbors when I first moved in, but I opted to hide instead. I somehow thought, Oh, I’ll only be here for another 20 years or so, there’s no point getting chummy. I have this thing about remaining anonymous and thereby exempt from the laws of social discourse. “Don’t mind me, I just moved into this big house on the corner where the previous owners had lived for 17 years or so and probably planned block parties, held rummage sales, and did house-to-house canvassing for the freakin’ American Heart Association, and here I show up, a middle-aged, apparently single gal from the exotic land of California, no visible means of support, lights on at all hours of the night, darts in and out with nary a by-your-leave or a “Howdy, neighbor!’”

My sister Barb’s sister-in-law lives around the corner from me, and, needless to say, I have been derelict in never dropping by to visit or to buy more of her stained glass ornaments. She told Barb she didn’t know why I bought that big house, there was a little ranch-style house down the street that was for sale at the same time that would have been “more appropriate.” So it’s now a running joke between me and my old friend P about how “inappropriate” and “big” my house is. When P was on vacation in Napa Valley, she mailed a postcard addressed to me at Menominee, MI, with zip code but no address other than “Inappropriately large house, 4th St.” It got here.

I often wonder if I’m ever going to make any friends here… I mean “friend-friends,” people with similar interests and outlook. Where have all the bohemians and artists gone? Long time passing! But I do have a growing roster of people I’m friendly with, who I stop and talk to if I see them around town. It’s different from the intimate friendships I’ve formed in other places. But these stop-and-say-hi relationships are surprisingly satisfying and genuine—whether the other person be waitress, bartender, haircutter, grocery store clerk, veterinarian, bank teller, or store manager. In a small town there’s a camaraderie that comes from seeing the same people in expected places, most of whom were born here and are connected in sometimes unlikely ways with family or other people you know. Usually I’m only one degree of separation from anyone I meet. Bob’s wife Bonnie works with my sister K, and Paul knows K and her husband MP from remodeling the house across the street from them. MP knows Tony my lawn guy from high school (amazingly, the lawns in town are well kept up despite the lack of illegal immigrants to do jobs that “Americans won’t do”!). Paul’s wife Mary graduated with MP, and Barb knows a lot of people from teaching their kids. Sometimes Paul brings in other guys to do little jobs on the side. The guy who trimmed my big ash (whose ash you calling big? oh, it’s a tree; never mind) turned out to be the brother of the woman who was so excited to see me at Mickey-Lu’s a couple years ago, though I had absolutely no memory of her. The brother, Niles, remembered my family too. (Where was I?) I know it’s not a huge surprise to “know people who know people” in a town of ~9,000 (close to 20,000 if you count Marinette, WI, and we do), but it still intrigues me. In my youth I opted to go to a large university, in part to be anonymous. Now I’m learning to enjoy being known a little bit.

going nuclear

…the tortured dynamics of nuclear-family life: the roles children never grow out of, even after they’ve become adults; the close-quarters intimacy that simultaneously binds and enervates…; the ever-shifting alliances; the short-lived feuds; the commiserative phone calls about how loco everyone else in the family is.
New York Times, 9-17-06

This is the tricky part, talking about my family. With people I don’t like or who will never read this, I don’t have to worry about being fair. I’m a whore for a laugh, you know that. But writing about my family, I want to be honest without hurting feelings if I can help it. This isn’t an annual holiday letter, where everything is amped up to impress, or at least bland enough not to anger any of the recipients. My goal here is to get at the contradictions of living with or around folks whom you care about deeply but who don’t necessarily share your beliefs and certainly don’t share your experiences. There, I’ve covered myself the best I can. Let’s dive in….

During my first year here, I felt like I had fallen in love. Everything was wonderful, from the beautiful Christmas light displays on every block, to snow fluttering down, to sitting in a funky bar eating pizza or fried lake perch. It was easy to take everything at face value, give everyone the benefit of the doubt, want for nothing to be different. As with my expected transformation from recluse to bon vivant, I believed that I would be wonderful, too, and to that end I vowed not to correct my family’s grammar or judge them in any way. You can imagine how that turned out.

K said to me a while back, “You’re just like everybody else now.” Oh no, my worst fear! But it’s not true anyway, except in the sense that it is. (How’s that for a riddle wrapped in an enigma?) I feel utterly at home here. The bloom is not off the rose; the honey has not gone off the moon. I’m just more realistic now. One either stays on the surface, making no real connections or commitments, or one settles in to Reality and accepts that life is more than pretty lights and the intoxicating smell of fish-fry grease and stale beer.

We have our differences—political, philosophical, cultural, and, of course, personal. For example, Barb is a born teacher, and I am a born editor. Often, the teacher resents being corrected and the editor resents being lectured. I often find myself struggling to: disprove the Internet stories offered as fact; accept without comment the clichés and oft-repeated anecdotes; fend off ingrained sexism and racism (the C-word, the N-word, the G-word [stop me when I run out of letters]); argue for my interpretation of the Iraq war or gay marriage or whatever. Recently, MP—to provoke me, I’m sure—complained, “Now we have to vote for a fuckin’ [N-word]!” Which I know sounds bad, but what I took from that comment is that somebody’s going to be voting for Obama.

There are some funny disconnects, too: One time, after I had ranted about George W. Bush for 5 minutes, my 27-year-old nephew Joshua exclaimed, “Aunt Mary said ‘Fuck’!”

Often, the disconnect is mine. K and Barb and I were on our way to Green Bay to get our fix of Target, Sam’s Club, and a real (for Wisconsin) Mexican restaurant. I’m driving, and K and Barb are chatting about this and that, and suddenly I realize they’re discussing Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Like the nephew who can’t believe his old auntie says bad words, I’m the oldest sister still thinking of my younger siblings (both in their 50s) as somehow still naive and uninformed.

Mostly, we all get along really well, and of course the waters run deep, even if they aren’t always still. Also, my sisters and I have our somewhat shared childhood—I say “somewhat” because I was incarcerated first and was paroled first, so we remember lots of things differently. There’s an ongoing debate over who was treated the worst: I received way too much intrusive attention, Barb was criminally neglected, and K was made to go to beauty school.

English, motherfucker! Do you speak it?!
—Samuel M. Jackson, “Pulp Fiction”

As for the grammar, I used to cringe when I heard people say “between you and I.” But it’s common usage around here to say, “Her and her husband went to the movies,” or “Me and him are good friends.” Waitresses often ask, “Do yooz know what you want?” Sometimes I have to clamp my hand over my mouth to avoid saying something, especially when it’s someone who should know better. I try not to flaunt my advanced knowledge of the English language, but it leaks out sometimes. MP doesn’t like my using “75-dollar words,” but after I thanked him for valuing my words so highly, he doesn’t say it as often. Besides, I think he likes to play dumb. I’ve been wanting to hit him with the line, “I refuse to have a battle of wits with an unarmed person,” but I don’t want to push it. We have fun, though. Me and my guy friends. Who knew?

I’ve always accepted that the initial ecstasy of union and re-union would dim eventually. How could it not? I’ve had a few serious disappointments, all beyond my control. I had looked forward to being involved in the lives of my sisters’ grandchildren, especially Summer and Sarina, with whom I spent quality time when I first moved here. But they’re now in their mother’s custody after a divorce, and even Barb doesn’t see them. I also imagined I’d be close to my nephew MJP, as we were when he was 14, but he’s a grown-up cynical (divorced) man now who has apparently cut all family ties. I’ve enjoyed spending time with his brother Joshua, but he’s divorced now, too, and caught up in his new job (long-distance trucking) and new dating life.

Mostly, any letdown I feel is minor and short-lived. K, MP, Barb and I (and Joshua, when he’s in town) get together every Friday night at K&MP’s house and either go out to eat or get takeout from the Marine House, Mickey-Lu’s, Applebee’s, or Taco Bell. (I wish I were joking about Taco Bell. The culinary options here are slim indeed, though the consequences are not.) One night we were having burgers at Mickey-Lu’s, a ‘50s diner that has never been gussied up to look like a ‘50s diner. It was a favorite hangout of the kids who had money to waste on junk (as my mother would say) when I was in high school. The burgers and brats [sausages, not children] are still grilled over flames and wrapped in butcher paper and plopped down in front of you on a Formica table. And the waitresses call you “hon.” It could star in its own sit-com. So here’s the scene: K, MP, Barb, Barb’s son Brian, and I are crowded into a corner booth, and the air is festive as all get out. It’s just a few days after Christmas, the decorations are still up, and the place is rapidly filling up with folks coming in from the latest snowstorm—red-cheeked, bundled up, and cheerfully stamping their boots. The noise is quite loud in this small space, and someone is playing the jukebox. MP and I sing along to the music, and he amuses himself by blowing straw wrappers at me. I feel like I should be having one of those honeymoon frissons, seeing myself and my family as if we’re extras in an Adam Sandler movie. But it’s just… what it is. No more the glistening-eyed romantic, the California expatriate, the prodigal sister, the city mouse moved to the country. I’m just like everybody else now. Except in the sense that I’m not.

Every week, after supper, we spend the evening watching TV or a movie I’ve gotten from Netflix. If it’s a movie I really want to see, I watch it at home ahead of time, because the peeps (or peops, as my friend Van logically spells it) don’t always have the longest of attention spans and are known to suddenly start talking to the cats or mentioning who stopped by today, or did you fill in the check register when you got home from Menards. Barb does most of the talking,  accustomed as she is to addressing a captive audience in her classroom. (Meow.) K points out that we get together to visit, but it’s hard to do that and also pay attention to a movie plot. Plus, they have a grandfather clock that chimes every 15 minutes, and the police scanner has to be turned up so MP can hear if there’s an accident he has to go to with the wrecker. It’s quite a contrast to my quiet household of three—two of us being dumb animals, and I’m not going to tell you which two.

I complain, I kid, but our Friday nights are a lifeline I would hate to do without. One night I went home and wrote down what I could remember of the latest news about Barb’s son Brian, because it reminded me so much of the “News from Lake Wobegon,” if Lake Wobegon had any young people living there, and if they beat each other up—oops, spoiler!

One of the best-kept secrets of middle age is that the personal dramas of one’s 20s and 30s (and 40s and 50s, in my case) are a thing of the past. Instead, I get to observe the personal dramas being suffered by my younger friends and relatives. One feels for them, and one freely dispenses advice based on one’s own youth (though, strangely, those fascinating stories from the ‘60s rarely seem to impress), but one doesn’t have to suffer them oneself. (Is a person less self-centered if she uses “one” instead of “I”? One is just asking.)

Here’s a condensed version of the stories Barb told us.

Brian’s (now ex-) wife Deb’s brother J broke up with Deb’s friend and married this new girl. No one else in the family likes her, so she won’t let any of them in the house, and he won’t answer the phone. Their sister Amanda thought it would be a good idea to tell him their mom had a heart attack and was clinging to life, just to get his attention. His father went over there to borrow a ladder that happens to belong to Barb—she didn’t even know he had it—and J made him talk out on the porch.

Brian sold the trailer. Deb was OK with it at first, but then she wished he hadn’t, because she and Amanda and their sister Mary wanted to go camping at Shakey Lakes and they would have to take Mary’s little trailer. They wanted the guys to go up and get everything ready for them and then leave. [The new feminism.]

One night, with her kids in tow, Deb’s friend Wendy showed up at Brian’s house and accused him of breaking in and stealing her safe. After a brief argument, Brian denying it and inviting them to search the house, Deb and Wendy walked over to Mary’s house to accuse Amanda of stealing the safe. Brian got angry at being accused, and also at not being asked to go along. He got in his truck and left.

[Here’s where it gets a little confusing.] At Mary’s house, Wendy physically attacks Amanda; Amanda’s boyfriend tries to pull her off; Jason and J.T. [who they?] try to break it up; Wendy shoves J.T.; he pushes Wendy to the ground; Deb screams at Wendy to chill out; Wendy attacks Deb, chokes her and gives her a nasty bump on the forehead. The neighbors call the police. Wendy returns to Brian’s house.

Brian gets home to find three police cars there. Wendy has walked away from the cops, yelling “Fuck off!” It takes three police to pin her to the ground. They get her into the squad car. She kicks the back window out. Her kids stay the night at Brian’s.

Brian is mad at his daughter Summer [who’s 12 going on 30] because “she’s such a drama queen and wants attention all the time.” As he’s telling Barb this, he’s holding his head in his hands. He says he hates his life and asks if she has any food so he can feed the kids.

A few days later, Mary, her son Devon, and her boyfriend are in a car accident near J.C. Penney’s. They’re hit head-on by a guy in his truck who admits to the police that he did it on purpose because he wanted to prove to his family that he didn’t care if he lived or died. Everyone seems to be OK, though Mary has to wear a neck brace and little Devon is called back to the hospital for a CAT scan when his face starts to swell up.

At the hospital, Brian tells Barb that he, Amanda, and Sean [Mary’s ex-husband—the guy Deb was cheating on Brian with] [you will recall that Deb and Mary are sisters] are all under suspicion for the theft of the safe from Wendy’s house. Sean, who didn’t have enough money to pay his water bill last month, magically came up with $3,400 to pay on his credit card. At the Nite Court bar the night before, Sean walked past Brian three times, smirking at him, and telling everyone in the place that he’s going to “nail” the third sister, Amanda, next. Brian goes outside and sees Sean letting the air out of Deb’s tires. Sean had told the two bouncers, who are friends of his, to look the other way. Brian punches Sean in the face.

Oh, and it doesn’t stop there, no siree. It’s a continuing soap opera that rivals anything on daytime TV. Although I feel for all the people involved—and also see that they are the agents of their own troubles—it’s kind of nice to be the onlooker for once and not the star of my own ridiculous melodramas.

Update: Sean is now in jail for drunk driving; Brian moved to Texas after the divorce; Deb is living with a new guy; and the beat goes on….

There are other things I could write about: my delightful kitties, my backyard “wildlife sanctuary,” the born-again cable guy, class in America, Pat & Rayleen’s new restaurant, and, of course, death. But I figure I should leave yooz begging for more. Au revoir.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #30 Summer/Fall/Winter/Spring/Summer/Fall 2003-2004

July 8, 2009


it’s the…

“increasingly midwestern”…







Great Lakes state

that ate…

the mary‘zzzzzzzine!!!

Subscribers protest: “What up with this Midwest shtick?”

I can only say, “Hey! It’s not that bad!”

November, 2004

As you may have noticed, this is the first mary‘zine to come along since the summer of aught-three. I have a lot to tell you.

One of my favorite e-mails that arrived last summer, after mary’zine #29 came out, was this one from the lovely Maria of NM.

I have been reading your increasingly midwestern preoccupied Mary’zine with conflicted interest these last two issues. The last one I had about had it. My thoughts midway thru the issue were “OK Miss Mary, you have just gone over the line with this one. If I have to read one more, I MEAN one more, cutely amusing email from Barb, I am going to cancel my subscription!!” But of course, they kept coming… AND I kept reading! I finally settled into it this last issue. I settled into the fact that I am truly happy that you have found the SOUL of your family life. You make it all so very interesting and, of course, funnier than anything! It really makes me want to break out of my little comfortable rut of Calif/New Mexico and see how the rest of the country lives their American life. But the food (except for the cherry pies)!!! I think I will bring my salad makings with me. May you live your bliss…. it sounds like you have found it.
All love, Mary!

I was glad to hear that Maria had successfully navigated the stages of grief—or of excessively midwestern preoccupation—and arrived at acceptance. I hope that my idyllic tales of small-town, family-bosom living will be of aid and comfort to you all.

a new life

I still can’t believe it. This has been the strangest, most uncertain, most exciting year of my life. It’s been the same for Pookie, except for the “exciting” part. Here we are in Michigan’s beautiful green (and orange and yellow and red—soon to be black&white) upper (U) peninsula (P) in the northern Great Lakes region. Menominee, humble town of my birth, is way down in the lowest part of the P, right next to Wisconsin, 50 miles north of Green Bay (which explains the plethora of green-and-yellow football bobble dolls and cutouts that decorate many yards). And Menominee is where I am now the proud owner of a four-bedroom house in a quiet neighborhood where the trees outnumber the residents, one block from the bay (Lake Michigan) and Henes Park (my refuge when I was growing up) and three blocks from the house where my family lived before my father became disabled with multiple sclerosis. (Can I pack information into a paragraph, or what?)

[See pics at end of post. There’s a mixture from different time periods. If the house is white, it’s back when I bought it. If the house is green, that’s how it is now.]

The upstairs of the house features a large open area (“the loft”) that I have taken over as my home office. There are tall, south-facing windows all across the loft and the adjoining bedroom, which has double French doors leading into the loft, and more windows facing east. There is a 30-foot-long attic bedroom on the west side and another bedroom on the north side. And a tiled bathroom with shower. Downstairs is a large kitchen, a semi-enclosed dining area with bow window, an L-shaped living room, and a large bedroom with vaulted pine ceiling, bow window, and window seats. There is beautiful woodwork throughout the house. The downstairs bathroom is tiled and features a large magenta (!) Jacuzzi. There’s a 2.5-car garage (so important to get that .5 vehicle in there) and a large basement.

Outside, there’s a sizable back porch off the kitchen, a patio off the garage, and a large lawn in back, surrounded by a chain link fence, with several trees, including an apple tree. Pretty large front lawn, too, with a big (maple?) tree. There’s also a birch tree, my favorite. The house is on a corner, with wide streets and no sidewalks. I’m 4 or 5 miles from my sisters and their families in Marinette, Wisconsin, over one of three bridges, because Menominee is tucked in between the bay and the Menominee River. Water water everywhere….

I love being here. It’s great to have Barb and K and K’s husband MP (and their kids and some of the grandchildren) nearby, and to be able to do ordinary things with them instead of just flying in and visiting for a few days. We go to Friday fish fry, rummage sales, shopping, breakfast or supper out, birthday celebrations… and who knows, maybe snowmobiling in the winter. Just kidding about that last part… I hope. One day K and MP drove me to Escanaba to go furniture shopping, and I made quite a haul: at a 25% off sale, I found a big red armchair & ottoman, solid oak sleigh bed, couch and coffee table, Tiffany-style floor lamp, and side table. With the furniture I brought from California, I still have plenty of room to spare.

I’ve become such a materialist. I want to (or at least think I should) write about everything that puts the heart in heartland—and I’ve discovered lots of it, from little kids to a personal banker—but my real interest seems to be in my shopping list. Thanks to the wild disparity in housing prices between California and the Midwest, I sold high and bought low, so it’s the first time in my life I’ve had enough money to get pretty much whatever I want (assuming I don’t want a villa in the south of France). Shopping here is limited to Wal-Mart, ShopKo, Kmart, dollar stores, and rummage sales, so people make biweekly or monthly treks to Green Bay or Escanaba. K and I went to Green Bay recently because they have a Target, where I bought a wok, placemats, flatware (I’ve had only two forks for as long as I can remember), driving gloves for winter, and a “mad bomber’s hat” with ear flaps that hang down. (When I tried it on in the store, K said, “You look like Mom when she took her teeth out!” I bought it anyway.)

OK, this is getting out of hand. I have an almost overwhelming urge to make a list of things I’ve bought for the house … wait …

•    things I’ve bought… kitchen island, TV, stove, washer/dryer…
•    things I’ve done… (lots of boring stuff plus) framed and hung 11 of my paintings; one of my nephews tried to tell me that “demented” is a compliment…
•    things I still have to do… buy real toys for visiting children so they don’t have to play with snakes and eyeballs from my sand tray collection…
•    things my peeps have given me… an electric drill & screwdriver set, our grandmother’s oak table, four dining room chairs, many sparkly things to hang from my sun-filled loft windows, a plaque that reads “Home Is Where They Love You”…
•    things my peeps have done for me… rescued and refinished the oak table, painted almost all of my rooms, cleaned out the gutters…
•    things I’ve hired out… lawn care, furnace repair, carpet cleaning…

What brought me here was my family, and they’re still the anchor, but I have a strong need for solitude. So now I have ready access to human companionship but can still be alone a lot. When I need a break from work (euphemism for “whenever I want to”), I sit by the loft window in my big red armchair, put my feet up, and watch the sky, the trees, and the birds, while I dream, perchance to nap. It’s so peaceful here, and such a change from my old neighborhood—no fights outside my bedroom window, no midnight ranting, no blaring rap music (until I get the new Eminem CD, that is), no police megaphones. Any sound that reaches my ears is completely benign… the drone of a lawn mower (they’re lawn fetishists around here)… the somber but romantic sound of a train in the distance… the screech of gulls out for a good time. I’ve set out to woo the passing birds and local squirrels by putting up feeders in a couple of the trees. One morning I raised the bedroom blinds and noticed a squirrel in the middle of the road down by the park. As if on cue, it came running in my direction. It got closer and closer, then veered off the road, slipped easily through a hole in my chain link fence, and made a beeline for the tree that holds a metal squirrel feeder. It climbed the tree, flattened itself briefly against the gray bark (did anyone see me? no? then let’s go for it!), zipped around to the front of the feeder, lifted the lid, and dove in head first, just the tail hanging out like Davy Crockett’s coonskin hat. It popped back out and paused for a second to turn the peanut around in its paws—checking for an expiration date? carb content?—and then stuck it back in its mouth and bolted down the tree and up the neighbor’s wooden fence and away. I like that my tree is a favorite destination of the local critters. And yes, I know they’re just “rats with fur,” but they were smart enough to take the “cute” evolutionary path, so I’m fine with that.

The weather is turning cooler, but I love it, and I’m eagerly anticipating the first downfall… oops… Freudian slip… snowfall. Everyone—and I mean everyone—thinks I’ll change my tune around about February or March, when it’s still cold and the snow has degenerated into dirty slush. But I don’t really care. I’m home.

And what does Pookie have to say about all this? After several months of travel (three road trips between California and Wisconsin/Michigan), strange motel rooms, strange houses containing rival cats and a couple of dogs, and a lot of disruption on the home front, Pookie is starting to trust that we have at last reached our final destination. I don’t like the sound of that—final destination—but let’s face it, where am I going to go from here?

So, to back up a bit, in early May I made the pilgrimage east to spend some time with my peeps. It was a working vacation: I stayed with Barb and edited a book called The Bacterial Chromosome on her dining room table. I wanted to find out if I could really live here, or if I had romanticized the idea of home and family on my previous visits. Going into the experience, I had no idea what it would bring or how it would end. But I understood that it wasn’t about “deciding”—lists of pros and cons clutched in fist—but about “finding out.” Process painting has served me well.

Unbelievably, my old friend P agreed to drive me and Pookie all the way here in her Lexus SUV. I wasn’t willing to take Pookie on an airplane, and I didn’t think he’d enjoy hitchhiking (no opposable thumb, for one thing), so driving was the only option. P lives in southern Oregon now, so it was an extra day’s drive for her. As we were loading up her car in my carport, trying to cram Pookie’s carrier, litter box, plastic sheeting, towels, water and food dishes, and the big lug himself in the back seat so our suitcases and my reference books, work files, office supplies, radio, and laptop could go in the cargo area, P said, “Why didn’t you bring Pookie up to my house for the two months and fly out from Medford?” I just looked at her. Brainiac that I am, I had never thought of that. So basically, the 4-day drive, plus another 4 days for P to get back to Oregon, were not strictly necessary. But I was glad we did it that way.

The trip itself was uneventful—unlike our big move in the early ‘70s, when we drove from Maryland to California with a dog and a cat in a U-Haul truck towing a VW and had many adventures ranging from a tornado to broken windshield wipers, a flat tire, and a close call with a motel sign (OK, so I hit the sign). On this trip we were fortunate to have good weather instead of the tornados and floods that came a couple weeks later. P stayed for 3 days, and, happily, she and my peeps got along great. But when she was leaving to begin the trek back home, I felt like I was being abandoned. Suddenly it didn’t seem like such a great idea to camp out in Barb’s spare room for two months and attempt to replicate my work and financial life in every detail, waiting for my future to reveal itself.

For the longest time, I didn’t know how Pookie and I were going to get back to California. I figured that if worse came to worst, I could rent a car… a big car. I had a target departure date of early July—I figured that was ample time to decide if I wanted to move. Most people said I should make one more visit, in the dead of winter, to see how I really felt about the place. But I brazenly (and I hope correctly) announced that I didn’t see winter as the big drawback that everyone else did. If I have to eat my words, so be it. But I ordered some cool (warm) clothes and boots from Lands’ End, so I should be fine. [Insert knowing laughs of family members reading this.] I bought a snow shovel the other day, too, and talk about knowing laughs—everybody blows around here. I have a lot to learn about living in the northland. (But this just in: the Northern lights. Wow.)

Anyway, I knew that something would come along to get us back to California, so I put my desire out into the “universe” (of my male relatives): “Gosh,” I’d say, “your Ford F150 truck with the snarling grizzly bear decal that fills the entire back window would be just the thing to drive out west.” Nearly everyone around here has a truck or two, so I seriously thought that someone would eventually say, “Hey, I was going to get a new one anyway—take this, and God bless.” No one did. But one day MP called to say that the Ford dealership where he works had just gotten in a used ’03 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo (do you think it has enough names?) and would I like to take it for a test drive. By then I had realized that I should buy a car rather than waste money on a rental. My ’89 Honda wouldn’t be much good in the U.P. winters anyway. So I bought the JGCL. Barb enjoyed teasing me about it: “Sure, I spoil my cat LaMew, but at least I’ve never bought him a car!”

One day, several of our peeps were over at Barb’s house, and Barb pointed to all the F150s and Explorers parked out front and said, “Looks like Ford Country around here.” I quipped, “I guess that makes me the black jeep in the family.” Ha-ha.

(Note that I have not yet rationalized my sudden endorsement of SUVs. But I cannot deny it: an SUV got me here, and another would take me back, and then back here again. I am comfortable with the fact of life that four-wheel drive is an absolute necessity in these parts.)

Living with another person in a chaotic household was a challenge, but one I mostly enjoyed. Little children and grown-up (30-something) children were always coming by to borrow a ladder or bring some spaghetti for our supper or install window fans or see what Grandma had in her refrigerator. I had a short working day, because Barb would get out of school at 3:00 and bring Summer and Sarina (8 and 4 years old, respectively) home to wait for their parents to get off work. Most of our mealtimes had to fit into someone else’s schedule. I’d wake up from a nap at 4:00 and Barb would announce, “Oh good, you’re up—we’re having supper at Brian’s in 10 minutes.” As a teacher, Barb works predictable hours, but most of the others do shift work, sometimes with mandatory overtime. So I had to be the flexible one, because I could work any time, unlike factory, shipbuilding, and retail workers. One day nephew Josh came in and saw me working at the computer, and he shook his head: “Must be nice.” (Summer was impressed, though. She said when she grows up, she too wants to have a job where she’ll “never have to leave the house.” I’m not sure I’m being a great influence.)

When Sarina and Summer were there, I’d be trying to work on a chapter about E. coli or a paper on pediatric cardiac surgery while they watched the ubiquitous reruns of “Sister Sister” on the Disney Channel. I’d turn around occasionally to see who said what or to ask if the mother and father of the separated-at-birth twin girls were going to get married. I sometimes paid more attention than the kids, who often fell asleep in the recliner or played with dolls from the toy box or (in Summer’s case) helped Barb grade spelling tests.

So my real work and alone time had to come after midnight, when Barb had gone to bed and it was just me and Pookie downstairs, eating snacks and listening to iTunes on headphones. Well, Pookie didn’t use the headphones, but he would sit on the back of Barb’s couch and look out the window at… well, nothing, because it was completely still out there. When I was visiting the previous summer, I didn’t understand how Barb could leave her drapes open at night, with the lights on so anyone could see in. At home in my condo, I was always barricaded, blinds down or cracked only slightly to let in some daylight or fresh air, constantly aware of movements and noises outside. So feeling safe was a pleasant change. Sometimes I stayed up until 6 a.m.—another reason (vicious circle, really) why my days were so short, because I’d sleep in until 10:00 or so.

I really enjoyed the kids, though, especially Sarina, who had blossomed in the year since I had seen her last. She was less shy and had become a talker, so would ask me endless questions about what I was doing. For some reason she was dying to know the password for my laptop (one day, she crowed, “One of the letters is an ‘n’!”) One morning when Brian came over to fix Barb’s washing machine, I invited Sarina to come along on my daily walk to the Mobil station to get coffee. It took ever so long to get there and back, what with Sarina looking at every leaf and bug, and cautioning me not to walk in the road and to look both ways when crossing, and I had to figure out what sort of drink to buy for her, not knowing the ins and outs of children’s beverages of the 21st century. We finally settled on some sort of Kool-Aid concoction with cartoon animals on the box and a top that only a child could open. On the way home, between asking if we’re almost there yet and bragging about how much juice she’s drunk, Sarina asks, “Aunt Mary, can we go for another walk?”

Barb and I, sometimes with K and MP, spent all of May and most of June driving around, looking for For Sale signs and checking out neighborhoods in both Marinette and Menominee. I’d say to Barb, “This is weird. I’m looking for a house and I don’t even know if I want to live here yet.” I didn’t want a three-bedroom ranch-style house, and I didn’t want a 100-year-old “charmer” that hadn’t been renovated since aught-whatever. But I believed strongly that finding the right place to live and “choosing” to move would go hand in hand. One day I remembered listening to the Eagles (a guilty pleasure) on iTunes the night before and singing along with “…I’m allllllready gone… and I’m feeeelin’ strong,” and it hit me. I was already gone! The “decision” had been made!

My fantasy dwelling was a house or condo on the water, but none of the ones I saw said BUY ME—or they said BUY ME IF YOU DARE. A house on First Street was practically in the bay it was so close, but the inside of it looked like no one had stepped foot in the place since ‘89…. 1889. I seriously considered a five-bedroom house down the road from Barb’s that had an asking price of $118,000 (!). It had Flower-Power-pink carpeting, horrible orange-patterned tile kitchen counters, and no appliances, but I loved the open-plan, all-vinyl-floored upstairs—the closest thing to a loft I figured I’d ever get. I alternated between thinking, “Am I crazy?? FIVE bedrooms?,” and “It’s the only place I’ve seen that isn’t a stuffy, cramped old-lady’s 2BR with orange shag carpeting.” Summer immediately loved the big house—she lives across the road from Grandma Barb so would be a close neighbor to me also—and announced that it would be fun, “We could sleep over all the time.”

Whenever we went driving around, looking at possible properties, Barb or K would say, “Oh look, there’s a fenced-in yard for Pookie!” And I’d say, “I already bought him a car, I’m not going to buy him a house!” And yet, that’s exactly what I ended up doing.

I wasn’t quite ready to commit to the Lincoln White House (well, it was on Lincoln St. and it was white…), so I looked at a few more places. I had an agent sending me fact sheets from the multiple listings service, but this is how a small town really works: Barb’s sister-in-law lives down the street from one of my former English teachers, who died this year. She had heard that the late Mrs. T’s daughters were going to put her house on the market, so she arranged for Barb and me to see it first. It seemed like my dream house—on Henes Park Drive, right on the bay, with a cedar-paneled studio, a large back porch, three bedrooms, all in immaculate shape. It seemed appropriate, somehow, that I could end up working in Mrs. T’s beautiful studio with its built-in bookcases and desk. It’s true that I was far from her favorite student, being kind of a smart-ass in my own quiet way, so there was a tiny part of me that wondered if her ghost would haunt me for taking over her beloved house. It was a moot point anyway, because they were asking over $300,000 for it. Technically, I could have afforded it, but I wanted less mortgage, more nest egg, so I let it go.

By this time—mid-June—I was beyond idle speculating and really wanted to find a house. It would be a lot easier to sell my condo and finalize moving plans if I had somewhere to come back to besides Barb’s spare room. And yet, I felt I was asking for the impossible: to find “the perfect place” that would cinch my decision to move away from my “almost-perfect place” in the Bay Area and give up all the perks of living there—the weather, the beauty, the restaurants, the gourmet take-out….

2000 miles I roam… just to make this block my home…

And I found it! It’s close to Mrs. T’s, and though I’m not right on the water, it feels like the perfect spot. Barb and K and I fell in love with it right away, despite the fact that it’s huge. (The sellers, with their two kids, wanted to downsize; it was a minor scandal among some folks that I was buying such a big place for just me.) There was much humorous speculation about Barb and K moving in with me. (Also, MP wants to live in the big downstairs bedroom, and nephew Brian wants the garage.) After we had toured the place for 15 minutes, I told my agent that I wanted to make an offer. (Barb claims she saw the woman’s knees buckle.) She was happy to present the offer to the sellers but informed me that she could no longer represent me, because her company was the one listing the house. She said to consider her “the same as the seller” from that point on. And so I descended into Real Estate Hell. I had no way of knowing if the asking price was reasonable, and I had no information about the history of the house. The agent swore she couldn’t tell me anything, that I’d have to “do my homework.”

The house was listed for $169,000, and I offered $165,000. The owners’ counteroffer was $167,000, the standard “split the difference” in bargaining. But Barb and I had gone to city hall in the meantime to see what we could find out. We ended up meeting with a really cool woman who’s the city assessor. Jill took an interest in me and loved the fact that I was moving back here from California. She was impressed with my work and the fact that I’m an “artist.” (Yes, I used the “A” word; it saves time.) In fact, she wanted to hook me up with someone from the local paper to interview me! I said that all my clients live elsewhere, but at least I would be spending my hard-earned dollars at Schloegel’s and Jozwiak’s, so I’d be contributing to the local economy. What she said next really astonished me. She said, “There’s also something about a soul coming home.” I couldn’t believe that came out of the mouth of a tax assessor! She told me to “be brave” and stand firm on my offer, because “no agent in her right mind” would advise her clients to turn it down. She later followed up with a phone call to Barb to see if I got the house, and even left a message on my home phone in San Rafael. We’re going to have lunch together soon, and I’m hoping she will have forgotten about the newspaper interview by then.

I also want to mention another cool woman I met. Actually, she was the first one who made me realize that not every smart person who’s born here grows up and moves away. Heidi is the bank manager at a Wells Fargo branch in Marinette, and also my personal banker (first one I’ve ever had). She’s extremely helpful, and I trusted her immediately. She has a very dry sense of humor and reminds me of the comedian Paula Poundstone, so we have lots of laughs when I stop in to see her. When I was mistakenly charged a service fee two months in a row, I called her and she said, “I set it up so you’d have to call and talk to me once a month.” We’re having lunch next week. Who knew I’d be hobnobbing like this?

OK, it’s time to start making this long story shorter. The agent was amazed that I wouldn’t back down on the price. But Jill was right: the owners accepted my offer just in time for me to leave for California on July 5. Pookie wasn’t too thrilled to be on the road again, but Barb had decided to ride back with me, so she fussed over him and we all survived the trip—in my case, barely. At a motel in Oregon, I fell OUT of a bathtub. It was the oddest sensation. The tub was slippery, I lost my balance, and before I knew it I was falling through the shower curtain, hitting the toilet with my right shoulder, flipping over, and landing hard on the floor on my left side. I got a massive, colorful bruise out of it but wasn’t otherwise hurt. But I can still vividly remember that feeling of “Nooooooo…..” as I flew out of that tub like a slippery bar of soap.

When we finally made it back to San Rafael, Barb stayed for only a few days, because she was anxious to get back to LaMew. (All the women in my family have the cat gene.) I gave her a quick tour around San Francisco one afternoon—through Golden Gate Park, past UCSF, through the Castro, the Mission, past the painting studio and some of my former apartments. Then she flew back home and left me to put the condo on the market and get ready to move.

I had my work cut out for me. Fortunately, I had a great agent—the antithesis of the one here. With the help of Connie, her partner Fletcher, and Julie the “stager,” we got the place looking pretty good. P happened to be coming down to the Bay Area the next week and spent two days helping me pack. The hardest part was having to keep the place spotless for 9 days in a row, and take Pookie off somewhere while agents and buyers were looking the place over. Usually I would drive to the civic center and park by some trees and read for a couple hours. Pookie had become quite accustomed to riding, but he did look at me strangely when we made these little jaunts and never even got out of the car.

The day after the open house, I got four offers. I met with Connie and Fletch to hear the details and almost fell off my chair when they told me that one offer was $27,000 over asking price, for a grand total of $425,000. The prospective buyer had no demands and was, in fact, offering to buy it as is—no worrying about the bars on the back windows or the sluggish garbage disposal, though I disclosed everything but what I’d had for breakfast that morning. I was so relieved when the buyer’s financing came through and it was a done deal. I then had to arrange to have all my furniture and stuff packed and shipped to Michigan. Barbara and Jean helped me pack dishes and other fragile items, for which I was grateful. I made several trips to the dump, the movers came, I put in a change of address at the post office, and took to the road again… just me and Pookie this time. I went the northern route so we could stop at P&C’s in Oregon. I was so exhausted from the move that we ended up staying for more than a week; it was bliss after all that lifting, hauling, and bending. My body is still sore.

The trip back was uneventful—no bathtub accidents—but horribly tedious. Achhh…. I never want to do that again. It took five days, and Pookie and I again bunked with Barb while I waited for the Fourth St. people to move out and the movers to show up with my stuff.

Once I moved in, the real work began. I had remembered unpacking as “the fun part,” but my memory, as they say around here, is good but it’s short. I was still getting editing work, which I had to fit in between the gazillion things on my to-do list. And of course nothing was simple—it felt like two to-dos forward and one to-do back… and much to-dos about nothing. I had to arrange for lawn care, get the locks changed, have the furnace checked, and start up cable, high-speed Internet, and phone service. I had to get a driver’s license, register the Jeep in Michigan, get car and homeowner’s insurance, and pay off bills from the condo. I’m still trying to get settled and catch up on everything. Every day I have to ask myself… Do I clean the garage or make another stab at installing Mac OS X on my computer? Do I prepare invoices, buy lamps and a rake, or assemble the kitchen island? From the trivial to the mundane and back again—when all I want to do is curl up in my big red armchair and do the New York Times Sunday crossword, while the red and yellow and orange trees out my window whip themselves into a frenzy.

On her days off, K would come by early (like, before 6 a.m.) to paint my bedroom, loft, and kitchen. She’s here again now, painting the living room and dining area. She wants to get to the downstairs bathroom next. The former owners had decorated the whole place in country kitsch, including a (fake) Christmas tree in every room and Christmas trees hand-painted on the bathroom walls. With K’s help, I’m gradually making the space my own.

One of the highlights of my week is on Friday nights when Barb, K, and MP and I go out for fish fry. You can only get not-frozen lake perch around here one day a week: the supply ain’t what it used to be. We could go to the VFW or various taverns for this ritualistic event, but we always go to Pat and Rayleen’s, a little family restaurant on Highway 41. We always have the same waitress, and she always remembers what we like. We laugh and carry on like we’re the only ones in the place, but just about everyone there is a regular, so there’s lots of yelling across the room and joshing with the waitresses and other customers.

It’s fun to talk about old times and trade memories and dispute versions of long-ago events with people you’ve known all your life. I still don’t believe I was part of a conspiracy to throw Barb’s Raggedy Andy doll up on the roof… but for me, being back here isn’t about nostalgia; it feels more like time travel… like Back to the Future—“Where we’re going, we don’t need…. roads….”—except that the trip was taken in real time, and I didn’t have to change anything in the past to make the present acceptable. There are enough of the old-timey places—the decrepit deserted gas stations, hulking gray asphalt-shingled early 20th-century bleak houses, defunct department stores put to new uses (mostly selling “antiques”), taverns that haven’t changed one iota since I was born, old factories that look like something out of a novel by Zola, Mickey Lu’s BBQ and Jozwiak’s bar, Henes and Red Arrow parks, the Interstate, Menekaunee, and Hattie St. bridges, the smokestacks and historic lighthouse, and the grand lumber-baron mansions on First Street—where I get jolts of remembrance that take my breath away. But at the same time, I can hardly believe that the past is well and truly—madly, deeply—gone, and I can weave the old and the new together—like the old neighborhood with its all-nouveau riche residents—into an adult haven. This is not your father’s Menominee-Marinette.

This year was the first time I’d been home for my birthday since I turned 17. Barb, K, MP and I went out to our favorite “occasion” restaurant, a roadhouse-style supper club in Peshtigo called Schussler’s. It’s a very friendly place—one big happy family, whether you know the other people or not. The first time I walked in, I felt right at home. There’s a bar with a lovely bartender who makes a Cosmopolitan as good as any I’ve had in the Bay Area. After the first one, I complimented her and confessed my snobbish California assumptions about midwestern libations. She was gracious about it.

I had decided to open my birthday presents in the bar, because it’s festive and I like to spend time there before being seated in the dining room. I had no idea there would be so many—I had already seen the oak storage cubby they’d given me back at the house. The presents kept coming and coming, and soon they covered one whole end of the bar. Everyone who came by remarked on how “someone must be loved.” At first I was embarrassed, but after about half a margarita I was holding each treasure up to be admired by the crowd—the bar was now filling up, despite the fact that it was only 5:00. After a delicious steak dinner (never thought I’d eat steak again) we drove back to K and MP’s, all four of us singing along to the radio—the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.” A sweet sound and a sweet feeling.

Faith-based initiatives? The destruction of the World Trade Center was a faith-based initiative.
—George Carlin

I must say, the politics up here leaves something to be desired. Even though Michigan and Wisconsin did end up in the “blue” column, billboards touting the pro-life-except-when-it-comes-to-the-death-penalty-and-war-and-innocent-deer agenda are rampant. My favorite: “Unborn babies are Americans too.” So Iraqi, French, and Chinese fetuses are actually American citizens, at least until they’re born? Wouldn’t that be a good argument against war? Think of all those unborn babies that will die! And shouldn’t we be championing the unconceived as well? Those that do not exist are Americans too! These people seem to think that the separation of church and state was the result of some horrible misunderstanding on the part of the Founding Fathers that must be corrected by any means necessary. They’re starting small, according to one sign: “Jesus Christ Is Lord Over Menominee County.” Today, Menominee! Tomorrow, the rest of the U.P.! But seriously. The separation of church and state was originally meant to guarantee freedom of religion: Let a thousand beliefs bloom. Not Christianity über alles.

There is so much more I want to tell you—did you know you can buy a salami in the shape of a beer bottle with a Pabst Blue Ribbon label on it?… have you ever seen a pickup truck with a shield that runs across the front of it with the words SCRAMBLED EGG or OLD GUY?—but I feel like I’ve come to the end for now. Working on this issue sporadically over the past several months has felt like trying to be cautious at an all-you-can-eat buffet when you’re starving. Too much too soon can lead to indigestion. I’ve only started digesting this amazing experience of returning to my roots after years of insisting I was beyond all that. It’s one of the secret pleasures of middle age, that life can still surprise and delight—it isn’t about sitting around waiting to die, as we all think when we’re young. To me this whole journey has been a lesson in the limitations of the will. Far from not being able to go home again, you can repudiate your birthright with what you think is every fiber of your being—and it can still come back to claim you. The will has the fiber. But Being is made of sturdier stuff—the Spirit. That’s the lesson, I guess, in a nutshell. But you’d better grab that nutshell while you can, because there’s a squirrel down the road that thinks its name is written all over it.


It’s so beautiful here—less spectacular than the Bay Area but rich in color and texture, fresh air and water, and very quiet. The fall colors have mostly… fallen… but the sunsets are awesome and the lake changes color daily. Last Saturday was as warm as a spring day but with a hint of burning leaves in the air. Brian and Josh came over to replace the framework around my garage doors, so while they worked on that, I hauled out the redwood-and-metal 6-foot cross I had made in California and dug a hole in the back yard to stand it up in. I caught a whiff of something I had been dreaming of for years: the smell of the earth in this part of the world. Places near the ocean have their own good smells, but I like this one the best. I breathed in deeply, feeling rejuvenated by it, taken back to the times when my cousins and I would make little holes in the soft spring earth and shoot marbles, or build hills with roads on which to “drive” our little cars. It felt oddly satisfying to be working outside. I replaced some nails and screws on the cross and got it stabilized in its hole with bricks I found in the basement. I had convinced my nephews to accept money for their work (going against a long family tradition), because I felt it was mutually beneficial. I needed those damn garage doors fixed, they needed the money, and if they didn’t do the work to my satisfaction, I could always sic their mothers on them. K came by in the afternoon and put my new mailbox up for me. Then we sat on the back steps in the warm sun and talked. Blessing upon blessing upon blessing.

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[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #29 Summer 2003

July 8, 2009

Cherries is the word I use to describe…. (I have a feeling this issue is going to be full of in-jokes. Take what you can and leave the rest.)

Well, it’s been quite a month or two in Lake Ibegone. First I be gone to Wish/Mich for 10 days, where I had the best vacation ever, and since then I be gone in my head trying to figure out what’s next. My whole world has been turned U.P.side down.

didn’t expect a miracle

You may recall that when I went back to the U.P. last fall for my brother-in-law Skip’s funeral, I rediscovered my family. (Funny, they’d been there all along.) To refresh your memory, here are the main players: my sisters Barb and K; K’s husband MP; nephews Brian (and wife Deb), Josh (and wife Jana), and Mike; niece Lorraine (and husband Aaron); and great nephews and nieces A.J. (8), Cody (2), Summer (7), and Sarina (3).

To come into this acceptance of family at my age seemed like a miracle. I have spent my entire adult life in a gay family circle—my ex-partner is as much family to me as anyone I share DNA with—but I had always downplayed the importance of the blood connection. Now I have to admit that seeing myself in Barb’s face, and having a long, strange history in common with her and K, even though we experienced the family in distinctly different ways, does feel special. The primeval feeling of the place where I grew up, on the shores of the Green Bay of Lake Michigan, adds to the miracle of acknowledging my attachment to that chain of life. I won’t go so far as to describe myself as the prodigal daughter, but I left home at an early age to make my way in the big world, and now I’ve come back with my “fortune,” which will someday benefit my sisters’ progeny and their progeny, and so on and so on. Someday they will be saying, “Boy, that great-aunt Mary really was great!”

My mother always made a strict distinction between blood and non-blood relations. When Lorraine (Skip’s daughter from his first marriage) was much younger, she went to hug my mother, who said, “You don’t have to hug me, I’m not your real grandmother.” I think Lorraine was scarred for life, but then so were the rest of us. For me, blood doesn’t really enter into it, except as a starting point.

So I was looking forward to going back for a longer visit, preferably one that didn’t include a funeral. I expected to have a good time, but what I didn’t expect was another miracle.

back from a future

I arrived on a Thursday night, and it wasn’t until a week later that I got around to taking Barb’s big purple truck and tooling around downtown Menominee by myself. I especially wanted to visit Spies [pronounced Speeze] Public Library, where I had spent many happy hours reading and conjuring a future for myself. In the children’s room I had read every adventure story they had, and when I was allowed upstairs in the adult section, I read every book I could find about girls at college, a world I desperately wanted to join.

The library had changed, of course. There’s a new addition and a new entrance, and the children’s room, instead of feeling underground-cozy down a flight of marble stairs and through a dark anteroom filled with glass cases displaying Indian arrowheads, an ostrich egg, somebody’s old bones, and pictures from the bygone logging and shipping days, now has big windows that look out on the boats in the marina. It’s appropriately modern and cheerful, and there’s a computer for looking up books. Except for the Hardy Boys, I couldn’t remember any titles or authors, just feelings I got holding certain books—books about deep-sea hidden treasure, or the Black Hawk Indians, or a boy who ran away from home on the back of a great bird. Unfortunately, librarians  have not yet figured out how to catalog books by feeling. Subject, Title, Author, Thrill, Desire, Aching Loneliness.

The display cases are gone, and there are no longer any dark rooms. My old haunts have been spruced up and brought into sync with the future. I don’t begrudge the changes. The past is continually being remodeled—razed, amended, reinterpreted. I had hoped to find an artifact, a long-lost book that I wouldn’t remember until I saw it again, but instead I felt that I was the artifact, the bridge, rooted on both ends of a space that seemed to encompass all time. I felt perfectly synchronized, in tune with my pastpresentfuture—oneword, onereality. And I realized that when the present aligns with the past—when there has been a complete exploration and acceptance of what brought you to this moment—then the future is aligned also. It’s like a lock that slides home and holds fast. Anything that happens from now on happens on that same continuum, because you are the continuum. I’m done defining myself in opposition to everything I experienced as a child. It’s all One. And it’s all good.

In the marina, dozens of boats are bobbing gently in the water. The bay is a rich, dark blue. It’s a beautiful sunny day, not too hot yet, and I inhale the fresh air with pleasure. I’ve always described the sky in my hometown as overcast and oppressive, like raw space curving right before your eyes into a bell jar every bit as confining as Sylvia Plath’s. So this feeling of freshness and possibility in the air is invigorating. Gee, when did everything change?, I wonder.

As I stand there, taking everything in, I feel surrounded by and deeply connected to this completely familiar, old-new place that seems surprisingly benign, considering how I had demonized it when I was aching to leave. Although my sisters and their families live over the river in Marinette (WI) now, it’s Menominee that still touches me, that makes me want to drink in (or drown in) the miles-long stretch of bay. The ocean is impressive, but it’s too vast for me to feel a part of. The bay that laps along the edges of my hometown and its twin city, the watery horizon that was so important to my dream of leaving that earthbound institution called the family, has a deep hold on me. Its little whitecaps on a windy day are dearer to me than the biggest surf in the Pacific. My “lake sisters” DH and KM will know what I mean.

Both Menominee and Marinette seem more prosperous now, although well-tended ranch-style houses with monogrammed awnings and cute flags and weathervanes on the front lawns still sit next to 100-year-old boxy two-story Scandinavian-immigrant houses with gray asphalt siding and rotting porches. The ubiquitous taverns are one-story gray asphalt boxes with no windows, sparkling on the outside with neon Old Milwaukee beer signs, dark as pitch inside and unchanged since before I was born. I kept wishing I were a photographer so I could go back and document the decay, a.k.a. history, of the place. Many of the buildings that housed thriving businesses when I was a child are now boarded over, torn down, or turned into something else. Meyers’ bowling alley, St. Ann’s Catholic Church, Niemann’s IGA, and the Gateway Cafe (where I had my first independent social outing in the 7th grade, having scrounged up a dime for a cherry Coke) have been demolished to make room for McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell, KFC, and Jiffy Lube. I know it’s a cliché to even mention the march of time, let alone the march of corporate America, but that’s each generation’s old fogies’ job, to miss the old and diss the new. Someday today’s kids will wish Wal-Mart hadn’t been replaced by wireless shopping pods installed in their foreheads at birth.

In short, I found the whole area to be comfortable with both its well-being and its decay. Or maybe I’m the one who’s become comfortable with my well-being and decay. Very possible. Very possible, indeed.

If my mother were reading this, she wouldn’t like the fact that I’m on page 3 and am still writing about buildings. When I was back there for a visit some 20 years ago, I went around taking pictures of the taverns, boarded-up gas stations, crumbling buildings of no known provenance, and other peculiar Midwestern old-country architecture that reminded me so much of the 1940s, in which I had spent the first years of my life. I always knew there was a reason I’m attracted to industrial areas, the railroad tracks and smokestacks and tall machinery framed against a blue sky, the Fuel & Dock and ships coming on the great waters and leaving perfect black and white pyramids of coal, ore, and salt. Back then Mom complained that I wasn’t taking any pictures of people. But I knew what they looked like, I wanted to have a record of Prescott foundry, Tiny’s Tavern, the Koffee Kup Cafe across from the train depot, places my father worked, drank, or hung out.

I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the place itself because I’m considering moving back there. (That’s the miracle, thank you for your patience.) For 30+ years I’ve considered the San Francisco Bay Area the only place in the world I’d want to live. But in my ruminations about the old and the new, and the lake so blue, I was stunned to realize that it would be an entirely different experience to live there as an adult, compared with when I was wriggling to get out from under Mom’s thumb. I can conduct my business anywhere there’s computer capability, and I would have a greater choice of housing for much less money than I could afford where I live now (I want to bring my inflated Bay Area dollars and Californicate the U.P. housing market, just as they’re doing up in Oregon). Most important, and the whole point really, I could bask in the glow of being part of a close-knit family system but retain my independence, or try to, by announcing over and over again that I don’t like to be dropped in on. That, or I may come to like it. Expect another miracle.

I just realized I hold two opposing beliefs: (a) that there are endless possible pasts and futures, endless “me’s,” and (b) that I was meant to live exactly the life I’m living now. If that life moves in the direction from which I came, it will feel like my destiny, ironic but true.

Yes, the drawbacks are legion. The winter. The summer. The lack of world-class restaurants and California farm produce. The lack of my favorite radio stations. The lack of large independent bookstores. The distance I’d have to travel for painting intensives and to see my Left Coast friends. But there are a few things there that I will never have anywhere else…

• bombing down the road (oops, “25 [mph] in town,” cautions Barb) with my sisters, singing “We Are Family” (“I got all my sisters in me….”);

• hopping on the back of Barb’s all-season John Deere tractor, this time lugging picnic supplies instead of blowin’ the snow doncha know, across the road to Barbaraland to roast wienies and marshmallows with my peeps;

• sitting in a comfortable lawn chair sippin’ on a Mudslide, watching two muscley dudes build a deck on the front of K and MP’s house while K watches their every move and demands perfection—and MP says to the guys, “Don’t ask me, she’s the boss”;

• hanging out on the new deck later that night, drinking only water or Fresca but gettin’ jiggy wid it when MP brings out the boom box and turns up the oldies station and we get up/get down and boogie to “Baby Love,” “Think!,” “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” “Sugar Pie Honeybunch”…. I’m transported back to MSU at the height of the Motown era, how lucky I was to have Aretha and the gang as a soundtrack to my debauched college life…. But we really get down with the Village People. Oh to have a videotape of me and my sisters in a chorus line, facing the dark street, singing to the night as we shape our middle-aged bodies into the Y the M the C and the A, right out there on the front deck, no railing yet so it’s like a stage, on the corner of a tree-lined street, kids coming by and dancing to our beat, other kids mooning us as they skateboard down the street;

• staying up late with Barb, each of us playing Bejeweled or Spider at our separate work stations, singing along to the radio until 3:00 in the morning, talking about anything and everything between periods of companionable silence. I couldn’t remember a particular time when I cracked up at Barb’s antics, so I asked her. She replies,

There were 2 times when I left the room and we laughed about things. One time I had changed into my nightgown and came in dancing King Tut style. At this you cracked up right away. The other time you were standing facing the printer dancing and I put on that Patriotic Cat in the Hat hat and was dancing behind you, waiting for you to turn around, and you finally did….

• going out to breakfast with whoever calls first (everybody works different shifts at their factory or car dealership or welding job, so the shopping or rummaging or eating-out group is constantly changing), meeting K and MP, sometimes Josh and Jana, at Pat and Rayleen’s (a little family restaurant on 10th St.) for bacon and eggs, staying in constant touch throughout the day on cell phones, Brian stopping in to drop off some mattresses he had to move out of his in-laws’ place or to cut Barb’s lawn, Josh and Jana wanting K and MP to go with them to see some modular homes, so we all troop over there and the salesman says, “I see you brought the whole herd!” As we move onto the lot to look at model homes, Barb emits a quiet “Moooooo….”

surreal i can taste it

I had been practicing driving Barb’s truck, so on the Monday after I arrived, I take ‘er out for my first solo run, over the Hattie St. bridge past the old paper mill to the Menominee airport to pick up KM, my friend and coworker from the University of Michigan/Graduate School of Business Administration/Bureau of Business Research, whom I hadn’t seen in over 30 years. Her husband Don has flown her UP in his private plane to have lunch with me and to see how the other half (of the state) lives. I take her (with many fits and starts—I keep thinking the brake is a clutch) to Pat and Rayleen’s where she has a burger and fries and I have more bacon and eggs. (Don’t they say that there are no calories when you’re on vacation?)

I am aware, as are all people who are growing older, that my reality has too many layers.
—Jon Carroll

After lunch, I take KM on a tour of the area—she lives in the woods downstate but fantasizes about living on Lake Michigan, so I show her the house on North Shore Drive where I lived from age 0-7. I stop outside, hoping the man whose face we see briefly in the window will come out and invite us in. (How weird would it be to stand in the rooms in which I experienced so much early trauma and joy?) But he doesn’t come out, he’s probably calling the cops, and then KM looks up and sees a Cessna flying overhead and it’s her husband! He’d said he was going to practice landing and taking off (or vice versa, I suppose), so he’s following the shoreline and, I don’t know, it hardly qualifies as serendipity let alone synchronicity, but there is something so delicious about all these different realities coming together in the same place—the adult me and the child me with the friend of 23-year-old me looking up at her husband in the sky with diamonds. I am immediately reminded of being 4 years old and telling a friend that I was going to Chicago to ride the “train in the sky” (the el) and she should watch for me in case we flew overhead. In that moment (and pretty much for the whole week) I felt like a living stratum of time, a future fossil that in the fleeting, eternal present encompasses all the layers of a life, all folding into one another in constantly changing forms, a kaleidoscope.

I drive KM around Henes (pronounced Hennis) Park to see the bay up close and then down the highway to First Street past all the grand old houses, built by the old lumbering and iron-mining families in the robber baron-slash-grand philanthropy days, and the beaches with wide lawns running down to them and the boats in the marina, and the library (built in 1903), the Menominee North Pier lighthouse (1877), and then across the Menekaunee Bridge, past all the bars I imagined Barb snow-blowing past last winter, and then, since we’re in the neighborhood, I show her Barbaraland (which KM later, in a typical flash of brilliance, dubs the Barbaretum) and bring her inside to meet my sister, who’s making bead necklaces (I seem to have gotten all the slacker genes in the family; home alone, I would have been taking a nap) and even drive her past K and MP’s house (they’re both at work) so she can see the new deck where we danced and sang the night away until it started pouring rain and I called my peeps pussies for going inside.

Then it’s back over the bridge again to Colonel K’s Pasties where we stop so she can take some of the nasty things home on the plane. She gets frozen ones (rutabaga [!] and beef) so we schlep up the road a piece to look for ice and a newspaper to wrap them in. Then back to the airport, where Don has been having a fabulous time trading pilot stories with the local flyers. I see their plane up close—it looks smaller than the purple truck!—and we hug and say our good-byes. KM e-mails me later to say they got home safe and that they’d had perfect flying weather both there and back. She pronounces the whole trip a surreal experience and I have to agree, though probably for different reasons.

When I get back to Barb’s, we pick up some sub sandwiches and head out to Porterfield to visit Lorraine and Aaron and the kids on their beautiful old farm with umpteen acres, yellow farmhouse with a red living room, donkeys, and a dog and a cat peeking out of different holes in the side of the 100-year-old barn. It’s the quietest and most peaceful place I’ve been in a long time. Not that their lives aren’t usually hectic, but on the afternoon we visit, the setting is the very essence of idyllic—visually stunning, with long green fields, the sun slowly setting, not a breath of wind and not a sound except for our own voices.

A.J. is shy, but he finally invites me upstairs to his room to show me his books. I take notes on what he likes and what he already has… the Magic Tree House series, Captain Underpants, Harry Potter. He thanks me many times for sending him books. He’s a big fan of dinosaurs but has branched out to race cars and now, according to Lorraine, plans to be paleontologist-slash-race car driver when he grows up.

I’ve known Lorraine since she was A.J.’s age. She’s smart, and I always assumed she would go to college. But to see her now, in her element, being mother, wife, farmhouse restorer, animal tender, hay baler, helper in Aaron’s workshop where he builds beautiful furniture, makes my heart stand up and holler. You ask, whither the family farm? It’s hither. Between the two of them, Aaron and Lorraine are the Jack and Jill of all trades. (Aaron also works fulltime in a foundry.) Sometimes Lorraine seems apologetic about her life, as if I must think she’s not living up to her potential. In high school, her vision of the future was to “go to college, get an M.B.A., and move out to L.A. and hang with Motley Crue.” Now she’s got a sweet husband, two kids and a bunch of animals, with plans to get some cattle and chickens, restore the master bedroom, rebuild the barn and other outbuildings, and make the furniture business self-sustaining. I am so happy for her.

On the way home, Barb and I discover we’re both hungry again (quel surprise!) so we stop at Perkins on 10th St. for a chocolate malt. We feel like naughty kids, sneaking away for a late-night treat. (The joys of middle age are life’s best-kept secret.)

every day packjam

I’m moving all around in time here, so let me back up a couple of days (BEEP BEEP BEEP). Looking back at the notes I scribbled at the end of each day—bare-bones reminders of where we ate, what we did, and who we saw [sometimes my notes are too bare-boned. I jotted down my sister’s K’s hilarious comeback, “Thanks, but I need my ass” without noting what prompted it]—I’m amazed at how much we packed in. I don’t know what we did more of—talking, laughing, singing, eating, or shopping. Usually, I was just “there,” but many times I stepped outside myself and drank in the sweetness of the moment. I knew this trip was going to be special when MP was driving Barb, K, and me north through Oconto after picking me up at the Green Bay airport. Oldies were playing on the radio, and we were all singing along—MP contributing the “ooooooooo” high notes (prompting me to wonder, Why is singing falsetto so satisfying?). I don’t remember which song it was, but during “The Sounds of Silence” (“Hello darkness my old friend”) or “I Will Follow Him” (“wherever he… may go…”), I look out my window to the west and see the red sun blazing as it slowly disappears below the horizon. It’s like having a dream come true, but a dream I never knew I had…. the blessing of being part of a loving family…. of seeing “family” as a positive force instead of an albatross of guilt and obligation. It’s partly a bond of blood, but the bond of history and shared experience, the bond of respect and love are just as important.

On the first full day of my visit, Barb, K, MP and I go out for a fish fry (deep-fried lake perch) at Pat and Rayleen’s (they should give me a free lunch for all this publicity). Sitting there with my peeps, anticipating my long-awaited supper (I had planned my vacation specifically so I’d be there for two Friday fish fries), I’m feeling a deep sense of comfort and freedom because we’re at the top of the heap now, no parents to worry about and appease. So I say that it’s nice to feel like equals, there’s no pecking order. K turns to me, and in a voice that rings throughout the restaurant says, “And you’re the oldest pecker!” We all burst out laughing. I am, indeed, the oldest pecker of them all.

One day we drive out to Riverside Cemetery to see Skip’s headstone and to visit the future site of my “ash-condo,” as I have dubbed it, next to Mom, Dad, and brother Mike. Friends have expressed surprise that I don’t want to be scattered over the bay or something, but I’d just as soon stay contained for as long as possible.

On the day of our picnic in the park, we have to stick around the house to wait for the fire marshal to come and bless the big metal half-tank Barb uses as a fire pit. She spends the time cooking and cleaning while I nap. Later I drive us over to Angeli’s for Barbie-que supplies and to a liquor store for Mudslides, White Russians, and ice. Around 5:30 we all start gathering down in the park, spray each other with Off, and then pig out on hot dogs, salads, beans, fruit, and chips. A sizable portion of the clan is there: K and MP, Brian and Deb, Deb’s brother John, Lorraine and Aaron, and the four kids. MP and I compete for custody of the deviled eggs (let’s just say I get as many as I want). The kids find a snapping turtle in a dirt pile and take it down to the creek, but not before K brings it over to us for closer inspection, eyeeeuu!

In due time, the grapes become projectiles in the hands of kids and adults alike. I try to get Summer to tell me what kinds of books she likes, and she claims to read “everything” (she’s 7). Deb reminds her that she likes fiction better than nonfiction, and Summer exclaims, “Fiction is amaaazing.” Deb says that when Summer writes about her family in school, she always includes “Great Aunt Mary.”

When we (and the mosquitoes) have eaten our fill and it’s getting dark, Brian stays behind to be sure the fire is completely out, and the rest of us go back up to the house. A.J., Summer, and I perch on the back of the John Deere, watching so the ice chest doesn’t fall off, while Barb drives. “The adults” try to find room in Barb’s two refrigerators for all the leftovers while A.J. and I sneak away to the computer room where I supervise his game of Dino Defenders, which he can’t play at home because their computer is “broken.” (Or at least that’s what they’re telling him.) I’ve never even seen a computer game in action before, so it’s kind of intriguing to watch him learn the commands as he goes—the object is for the main character to trap or kill a series of ferocious dinosaurs, but the learning curve is steep and A.J. keeps dropping the guy off a cliff into the river, at which point he has to start over. After about an hour of this, I’ve seen enough to last me a lifetime, but now Cody has come in and wants to sit on my lap and watch. He’s brandishing a green sucker that gets alternately dropped on the floor and stuck to my shirt. Cody says “Da” whenever A.J. has to start the game over. He’s consistent, so I know it must mean something to him, but I have no idea what. A.J. is so grateful for the chance to play that I let him continue until Lorraine comes in to say it’s time to go home. He of course tries to wrangle more game time, saying he just has to trap one more dinosaur (he’s clearly stretching the truth), so Lorraine and I talk while A.J. tries to get his guy over the river, again and again, aiming for the woods where all the dinosaurs are. I’m amazed at his patience.

One evening, when we’re on our way over the bridge to have burgers at Jozwiak’s tavern, we come up behind a large bus. It’s not a regular tour bus on the way to an Indian casino, in fact it looks like it could be a rock’n’roll bus. On the back window are several M&M stickers—I mean the little candies with arms and legs and big M’s on their chests. I don’t dare hope, but… could it be? Would the real Eminem please stand up? please stand up? I can see it now. The great M is heading for an appearance up north—to Marquette? Superior? Houghton? Canada? Somehow I can’t imagine him using the M&M candy logo, but a gal can dream, can’t she? Once I’ve imagined him on the bus, it’s no trouble at all imagining him tooling down Hwy 41 and spotting the big painted letters on the side of Jozwiak’s building—“BBQ and pizza”—and stopping in for a coupla Wabashes, thinking he’s safe from his legion of fans—because who would know him in this rinky-dink town? So he’s chillin’ in the back of the tavern with his roadies, talkin’ about their loves, their losses, whatever rock’n’roll guys talk about, and suddenly who should appear but this big ‘ol middle-aged dyke with blue spiky hair and a Berkeley t-shirt, her “herd” close behind her, whooping it up because oh my GOD, it’s YOU. What UP, Em?

At the turnoff to Jozwiak’s, the bus keeps going straight. I sigh at the abrupt termination of my fantasy, and we go in and eat our burgers while watching a very drunk old man try to make it from his bar stool to the door.

The next morning, Barb and I, K and MP, and Josh and Jana tour modular homes, check out a few prospective lots, and then head up the highway to Seguin’s cheese store so I can get some goodies to mail home to P and C as thanks for feeding Pookie while I’m gone. We’re in there for a long time, because I’m agonizing over what kinds of cheese to get. I’m drawn to the ones in the shape of a cow or Wisconsin, but I don’t think my friends are as enamored of that novelty as I am. I finally settle on some Gouda, extra-sharp white Cheddar, and baby Swiss. I throw in a package of Wisconsin beef summer sausage and some fudge from Mackinac Island. I arrange for the shipping and then join the others in browsing through the tourist merchandise. I buy Barb some earrings for her birthday, and K and MP buy bracelets (MP wears his all the time now, even to work, where he gets teased by lesser men than he). I find a nice canvas cap with M (for Michigan, for Mary) on it. On the way home, we stop for Perkins’ malts again.

That night we’re sitting out on the new deck when “little Mike” calls. He hadn’t made it up for Father’s Day because of some trouble I don’t fully understand. MP talks to him for a while and then hands me the phone. We’ve had no contact for 12 years. I’ve been holding on to an image of him as a sweet kid of 14 who wanted to be around me all the time, who was really funny and smart. Now, of course, his voice is unrecognizably adult, he’s had a bad marriage and a couple of kids and is going through a divorce. The Mike I knew is no more. After some awkward small talk, I decide to just put it out there. I say, “I really want to see you, to see if I can find the sweet and innocent ‘little Mike’ I remember. Are you still sweet and innocent?” He laughs flatly and says, “No… but Josh is.” We say we’ll e-mail each other and I give the phone back to K so she can say good-bye. I’m really sad. I feel like I’ve gained one nephew (Josh) and lost the one I thought I had.

Later, MP and I are sitting out on the deck alone. He asks if Mike and I had “a nice chat.” That starts me crying, and I just shake my head no. He’s quiet, waiting for me to speak. I tell him about the phone call and say that I always thought Mike had so much potential. MP agrees, and we talk about him and Josh and about MP’s hopes for them both. Later, he asks Barb if I’m OK, because I had been crying. This isn’t the brother-in-law I thought I knew. There’s a lot more to him than “the baddest guy around.”

MP is notorious for not liking to be hugged, so I don’t ambush him like I used to (and like my mother used to), as if imposing bodily contact on someone is delightfully sneaky. But one night as we’re leaving, Barb and I hug K, and then I look at MP all the way across the room. As a joke, I put my arms out as if to hug him and the whole room at the same time, and then he does the same. We both laugh, and I feel that we have found a compromise both of us can live with.

But what really surprises me is when MP talks about wanting to have a recommitment ceremony with K. When they got married originally, my mother made all the decisions. She moved the ceremony back to February from June, because she assumed that K was pregnant. (Their first child didn’t come along for another 2 years.) She chose the church (hers), the colors (she had Barb wear her prom dress, so everything had to match that), and, believe it or not, she even chose the best man—Barb’s boyfriend at the time. I assume that they managed to consummate the marriage without her help, but that was about all they had control over.

By the way, I asked MP if there was anything he wouldn’t want me to say about him, and he said to go right ahead. He may be regretting those words right about now.

I’ve encouraged them to have another ceremony, and I promised to come out for it anytime, even in the dead of winter. I offered to be his best man, but MP didn’t jump at the chance. Now get this. There’s no love lost between MP and his family—he’s the fourth of 12 kids and was physically abused by both his father and his older siblings. So he’s talking of changing his name to McKenney. I don’t know if he’s serious, but his even suggesting it says a lot. My baby brother who died was named Michael. He was 4 years younger than me; MP is 5 years younger. I know he can’t really be my brother, but I like the idea of his being a kind of grown-up representative or reminder of the Michael I barely knew and deeply mourned.

On Thursday, while I’m off having metaphysical insights at the library, Barb and K bake me cookies to take home—Barb makes the chocolate chip and K makes the peanut butter. I should have protested, “No, no, no, I can’t possibly eat any more,” but I was salivating so much that I couldn’t get the words out. Barb also bakes a cherry pie, because the three of us have discovered it’s our favorite dessert. We eat it Friday after another round of birthday shopping.

My last meal is a fish fry, of course, back at Pat and Rayleen’s, of course. Afterward, we drive to the lighthouse pier and walk all the way out on it. We can see across the water to Red Arrow Park in Marinette, so we go there next. We sit on a park bench above the beach and talk and watch some kids who are splashing around in the water. Barb calls Lorraine to leave her a message, and we find out later she couldn’t understand a word of it because we were all laughing so much.

It’s time to wrap it up. We stop by Josh and Jana’s, because Josh has taken half a day off work so we can say good-bye. Brian tries to convince me to stay another day so I can meet his other two kids who are coming for the weekend. Lorraine shows up at Barb’s at 7:00 the next morning to say good-bye. MP has to work on Saturday, so K drives me and Barb down to Green Bay to the airport. As we’re heading out of Marinette, we pass the dealership where MP works. K suddenly beeps the horn and says, “Hey, Michael’s out there!” By then we’re past the place, but I stick my hand out the small window opening and waggle my fingers in his direction. Knowing approximately when we would be passing by, MP had come out to wave to us. I think that says a lot, not only about the family connections, but about the scale of the place.

back to a future

A year ago I could not have predicted and would not have believed that I’d seriously consider moving back to the U.P. (or across the river and through the woods to Grandma’s house in Wisconsin). There are advantages to small-town life that are easy to overlook if you’re used to living the life of a sophisto-cat…

• You can get anywhere you’re going in 5 minutes and park right in front.

• Once you get away from the shopping malls and fast food joints, there are many pleasant neighborhoods with trees and lawns and wide streets and friendly people. If your brother-in-law knows all the police on a first-name basis, so much the better.

• It’s pleasant to live at a slower pace. Here in San Rafael, though my life is as slow as I can make it, I expect catastrophe at any moment. Part of the slowness I felt back there was from being on vacation, but more than that, I felt safe in the bosom of my homies.

• If you don’t have to work at a dirty, low-paying job, and if you have computer contact with everyone else in your life, including clients and bookstores that do free shipping, and if you got most of your traveling and sightseeing and club-hopping out of your system back in the ‘70s, then the down-home life is just fine. The key is money. Most people who get more money will try to swim upstream into a higher class, but they will never feel completely at home there.

• Ambition in a small town (if you’re not in the echelon who want to be judges and mayors) consists of making a decent wage, buying a house, and supporting the kids in the style to which they would like to become accustomed. If you’ve already done all that, your cost of living will be way low. There’s no concern about status except perhaps in the doohickies you choose to put on your vehicle (I saw a pickup that had been covered with newspapers and shellacked), a status system to which I am impervious.

• You feel physically more comfortable there, because a dress code is virtually nonexistent. and no one cares if you have a bad hair day. As long as you’re not a kid or trying to get into an exclusive country club, you’re pretty much free to be, you and me. Hardly anyone mentioned my blue hair, except when all three of us became the Blues Sisters for a day. A lady in an antiques store asked if this was a new trend, and we told her we were trying to start one. We said we were sisters having a good time together, and as we went giggling out of the store, she said she could see that.

• If you want to see people, they’re all within a very small radius. You grab your phone on the way out of Shopko and call to see if K and MP want to go out for lunch or to a movie. Or Brian calls on the “bag phone” in the truck to see what’s up, and you decide to have a picnic in the park. I don’t know yet what you do if you don’t want to see people.

• Here is a very big thing, that I value more as I get older. If you need help, you got it. People will get out of their beds in the middle of the night and come over to give practical or moral support. If you need a ride, a paint job, a lawn mowed—anything up to and including a calf birthed (I think I’m kidding)—your peeps got your back. And they got you, babe.

home again

It was nice to get home (to Calif.), but it wasn’t that “inhale the fresh ocean air and kiss the ground” sort of feeling I used to have after getting back from a visit with Mom. I had been thinking about Pookie all week and anticipating our joyful reunion. When I came in the house, I called his name and there was a long silence…. then a plaintive little “mew.” He came creeping down the stairs as if he couldn’t believe his eyes—she’s back!!!! I think he was traumatized by all that alone time. He got back at me by being very aloof for the rest of the day. But when I vacuumed the next morning, the familiar, hateful noise must have reassured him that we were back to normal, because he warmed up to me after that. Now he likes to sit with, I mean on, me when I’m at the computer. I can’t reach the keyboard when the big lug is sprawled across my lap, but I can use the mouse to play Spider or Forty Thieves while I’m listening to “Loveline.” Life, she is sweet.

home again?

For me, “back home” has become a phrase that no longer denotes a direction. I went back home. Now I’m back home. But should I move back home?

At first I thought the idea of moving was just an idle fantasy born of a fun vacation in perfect weather. And maybe it is. But the idea refuses to go away. It’s not that I’m unhappy where I am now—au contraire. My cup runneth over—but somehow it doesn’t seem to spilleth. One cool, sunny morning, I sat out on my patio, working on a manuscript from Italy about TREM (triggering receptor expressed on myeloid cells) and watching Pookie roll around in the oleander blossoms, and I felt expanded, not divided. My life here is ideal in many ways, but there’s one big thing missing. Barb and I are in daily contact by e-mail, but it’s not good enough anymore. I want to share my life, not just run it by remote from my command post, the computer.

Call me crazy, but I fully expect not to have to give up anything essential—of my essence—to go UP. There will be plenty of trade-offs, I know. I’ll be blowin’ the snow with my sis in tow, or vice-a-versa while I shiver and curse-a. I’ll be screamin’ and kickin’ for Yu Shang’s chicken or Chevy’s fajitas and margaritas. I’ll be like Hawkeye on M*A*S*H* when he wants a BBQ bash and calls Kansas City, askin’ for delivery. At least I’ll have the Internet, you bet.

But I can’t just UP and move, I’ll want to spend a couple months there on a “working vacation” to try small-town life on for size. If I go sometime in the fall, Barb will be teaching and I could attempt to replicate my work life using her PC. The problem is Pookie—and her cat LaMew. How would I get Pookie there, and could the two male cats coexist? LaMew is much smaller and has a shattered front leg from getting shot by some a-hole neighbor several months ago. (He gets along amazingly well on three legs—LaMew, not the neighbor.) Would Pookie take advantage of the wounded rival, or become the big pussy he really is and hide behind the couch the whole time?

For a while, Barb and I were e-mailing feverishly back and forth, trying to work out how I could come this fall and how we would accommodate Their Two Royal Highnesses. She made it clear that her casa be mi casa and that she would welcome me with open arms. That reassurance is better than insurance.

Finally, I decided I would have to drive there, but it was out of the question to make the trip with Pookie in my two-door Honda Prelude. Maybe after 1,000 miles or so, he would realize we weren’t going to the vet, but I really don’t think it would be pleasant for either of us. Could I rent a van? I half-jokingly asked P if I could borrow her RV, and she said “Sure.” Suddenly, Barb and I were making real plans, including her flying out here and driving back with me! We figured we would let the chips (and the cats) fall where they may.

I think it would be a blast to take a road trip with my sister, but if we did it this year she would have to get back in plenty of time before school starts on August 25. So she would have to come out here in a couple of weeks! I went into a quasi-panic, almost calling my therapist J to beg for help in making my decision… but I already knew what it was. I wrote to Barb:

I’ve been thinking about our Crazy plan, and I think I have pinpointed just exactly what is Crazy about it….. One plane trip (yours) and two cross-half-country road trips (1 for you, 2 for me) accounting for more than 16 woman-days (if I did the math right) of hot, tiring travel with the lingering aroma of urine and feces…. why?…. to accommodate a CAT, albeit a beloved one. Not knowing the reception said CAT will get at the other end is nothing compared to all that slogging back and forth.

Just as suddenly as it began, the whirlwind subsided. We had talked about knowing when the time is right, and that includes knowing when it’s not. I still feel a strong urge to be there, but that will have to remain a dormant impulse for now. Maybe I’m gonna wash that vacation right outta my hair, or maybe it will all come together in 5 years when my mortgage and Barb’s mortgage are both paid off and we have some financial elbow room.

I’m having a hard time finishing this, because there’s no real ending. The Wish-Mich-or-Bust plans resurfaced when J asked me if I had a friend who would be willing to drive cross-half-country with me and then fly back. I said, “Well, P has said she’d like to do it,” and there was this big silent DUH hanging in the air between us, and I admitted, “I never thought of that.” So I checked with P later, and she has her hands full this fall, what with retiring, packing for the move to Oregon, going to Tahiti for 2 weeks, stuff like that. But by spring she should be Free To Be, Her and Me. Then I could have my 6-week working vacation while Barb is teaching, and maybe a short real vacation when school gets out. The possibilities are morphing daily, this way and that, the kaleidoscope is spinning, and if this were a movie you’d be seeing calendar pages flying off to indicate the passage of time. The scene that follows is still a mystery. All I know is, I’m going to follow my heart. Pookie will just have to deal with it.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #28 April 2003

July 7, 2009


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

So let us now dip into…

ye olde mailbaggie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woof, woof, woof, woof,

Mr. Ben Corgi

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

Dear Ben,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mare de la Zine

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

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

—Donald Rumsfeld

S.F. Bay Area Car Bumper War News Update

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


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


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


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

Then bumper sticker #1 was supplanted by


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

My contribution to anti-W-war bumper literature is


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


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

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

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

my own private Vietnam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are H’s obligations to her original family?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #24 October 2002

April 29, 2009

Life, death, guilt, redemption, the F word, etc.

Dear friends. Well, I had this issue pretty much worked out—in my carefully planned but intermittently spontaneous way—when events interrupted my carefully planned but intermittently spontaneous life and I had to fly back to the Midwest for a funeral.

My brother-in-law Skip died of a heart attack. This is the brother-in-law I wrote about in January, to whom I hadn’t spoken in years. I was painting him last year when a verse from The Merchant of Venice, “The quality of mercy is not strain’d…,” started running through my head. After that, I felt better about him, but we never reconciled directly.

I had been dreading this trip back home, on a number of levels, ever since the last time I was there, 11 years ago. After my mother died, there seemed no more reason to go—I didn’t feel the same obligation toward my sisters. And I had no desire to see Skip, who had been emotionally intrusive to me when my mother was dying and then, in the following months, became even more possessive and demanding of my time and attention. When I tried to set boundaries (this was pre-J, when I barely knew what boundaries were, let alone how to enforce them), he withdrew, I got pissed, and it’s been a stalemate ever since. When I asked my sister if she wanted me to come for the funeral, she said it was up to me, but I knew she’d want me there. So I arranged for Pookie to be looked after, made my plane reservations, and called J to cancel our next appointment; when I told her I didn’t want to go but felt I had to, she said, “That’s what families do for each other.” And I whined, “Well, I guess they’re my family….”

I’m a little concerned about how I’m going to come across in this story, because I have certain expectations (and thus project them onto you) about what should have happened if I were truly a Good Person. First, I should have made up with Skip when he was alive—isn’t that some sort of Good Person rule, like never going to bed angry? Plus, funerals are supposed to be all about pain and regret. There’s supposed to be a lot of crying and not very much laughing. In extreme cases, there should be an attempt to throw oneself onto the funeral pyre.

I don’t know where I got those ideas, because my father’s family had classic Irish wakes. As adults, his 12 brothers and sisters only saw each other at weddings and funerals, and except for the bride and groom in the one and the casket in the other, you wouldn’t have known which was which. Maybe there was a bit more crying at the weddings. My mother and I always sat on the sidelines, dour-faced, uncomfortable, with an unwanted brandy and Coke in front of each of us. I wished I could be more like my partying aunts and uncles, but I knew implicitly that it would be a betrayal of my mother to trade her Scandinavian reserve for their Irish lack of inhibition.

Since the age of 14, when I rejected God, country, and motherhood (but not apple pie), I’ve sneered at the idea of family (Family is the F word), as if I were too smart for such a mundane commitment to people with whom I believed I had little in common but a few genes and a name—and not even a name anymore, since my sisters and their children are now K___’s and P___’s. The only McKenneys in our hometown are my father’s nephews and their wives, with whom I have no contact at all.

But on this visit home to my roots (rhymes with foots), for a variety of reasons, I was ready to embrace the clan, though I didn’t know it until I got there. When my mother was alive, I had to tiptoe around her moodiness and narcissism. Then Skip took up where she left off. Like her, he knew instinctively how to dominate by passive aggression and how to trip the guilt fantastic. Gee, maybe there’s a reason my sister married him.

I was a little concerned about flying—it was the 1st anniversary of 9/11—but the flights were uneventful and security was fairly minimal. I expected a long delay at SFO, but they only pawed through one of my carry-on bags and inspected my shoes; they didn’t touch the knapsack with the crucifix jackknife hanging from the zipper. In Chicago, where I had to transfer to a tiny DC-something to wing northward, they pulled me out of line, passed a wand over every square inch of my body, and pawed (it’s the only word for it) through both bags, still overlooking the potentially lethal crucifix. (I didn’t remember it was there until much later. I would have hated for it to be confiscated, since it’s a beautiful, quirky work of religious art and a gift from Tee.)

So I arrive in Green Bay, and my two sisters and my other brother-in-law are there to drive me the final 50 miles to Barb’s house. I’m hopped up on goofballs (3 Dramamine) and forget about my suitcase, but fortunately K asks how I managed to pack everything into two small carry-ons, so we traipse back into the terminal to get it. Finally, we’re headed out on the flat stretch of Highway 41 coming out of Green Bay.

I recently read a review of a book about the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871, a catastrophe that, according to the New York Times, “remains somewhat obscure, due partly to its remote location [my emphasis] just west of the Green Bay, near Michigan’s Upper Peninsula….” That’s my home ground, folks, Remote is our middle name.

I could never live back there again [2009 update: Oh, how little I knew about myself], but as we drove north, I avidly watched the landscape for familiar sights and reminders of my childhood. (Traumatic childhood becomes wistful nostalgia; must be a survival mechanism.)

In Oconto, we pass our late uncle Al’s Riverside Tavern, still looking exactly the way it did 40-50-60 years ago. Throughout the area, I noticed that, while factories and businesses have closed and churches have been torn down, all the old bars are there—the Ogden Club, Dino’s Pine Knot, the Green Light Tavern. There’s always money for booze (she said, sounding exactly like her mother). But unlike my mother, I have a preternatural interest in those places. I don’t drink beer, but I collect Silver Cream (“The Cream of Beers”) bottles from the long-defunct Menominee-Marinette Brewing Company—probably because my father used to take me with him to bars when I was a preschooler. (That sounds worse than it was; he was mostly just socializing when I was along.) I still love eating in those old taverns. Proust can have his madeleines; I’ve got the aroma of deep-fried lake perch and stale beer to trigger fond memories.

In Peshtigo, we pass by another tavern that has a sign outside advertising a certain Milwaukee beer. I haven’t seen the name in years, so I blurt out, “BLATZ!” After a pause in which everyone else in the car probably thinks I’ve gone off the deep end, we all crack up.

I had thought that if I ever went back there after my mother was gone, I’d have to stay in a motel so I’d have my “space.” This is an unknown concept in the Midwest, apparently. When I used to tell Skip I needed my space, he’d call and say, “I’m going to take some of your space now.” But it was obvious that Barb didn’t want to be alone, so my niece fixed up a spare room for me, and I was able to have my space and eat it too (as it were).

Dramatis personae

Before I go any further, I’d better introduce the family:

Barb: Youngest sister, 48. Middle school teacher (math and science) in the town where we grew up. The new widow. Has heart of pure gold.

Skip: The deceased, 57. Estranged brother-in-law. Retired career Air Force/Vietnam vet/cross-dresser/tranny-wannabe. (This last used to be a closely guarded secret, but it seems everybody in town has known about it for years. A local store for plus-size women’s clothing sent flowers for the funeral. One of the unintentionally funny things the minister said during the eulogy was that Skip was “a man’s man.”)

Lorraine: Skip’s daughter, 31, from his first marriage, but Barb raised her from the age of 7. (Her mother died.) Funny, smart as a whip, lives on a farm. She takes care of three donkeys, a horse, at least one pig, lots of cats, and her two kids—A.J., 7, who wants to be a paleontologist, and Cody, 2, who has no career plans yet that I know of.

Aaron: Lorraine’s husband, who works on the “melting deck” of a foundry—a hot, dirty, exhausting job (same thing my father did). He’s quiet, very sweet, and is still Lorraine’s best friend after 10 years of marriage.

Brian: Skip’s son, 29, former n’er-do-well who finally responded to parental tough love and turned his life around. Unfortunately, fathered six children before doing so. Works two jobs as an appliance repairman. He and second wife Deb have a daughter, Sarina, and Deb has another daughter, Summer, who is half Thai. Summer, like A.J., is 7 and very smart. Sarina, age 2, is an unknown quantity. (I can’t relate to kids until they can form complete sentences.) Brian and his family live in a mobile home in a trailer park and so, in the minds of many Americans, are “trailer trash.” I saw a documentary on PBS about middle school kids. One snotty girl, surrounded by her fashionable friends, referred to a certain classmate with disdain: “We wear Abercrombie—he wears, like, WAL-MART.” If I were in charge, I would require two ongoing classes beginning in elementary school: (1) critical thinking and (2) socioeconomic class awareness.

K: Middle sister, 50, works in a factory. She makes couplings for tractors and such. Works a 10-hour shift 4 days a week and is an avid gardener and home decorator. She’s another one with a heart of gold. I guess our parents did something right.

MP: K’s husband, avowed (and proud) asshole. Fourth of 12 children and estranged from his entire family. Is a customer service rep, of all things, at a Ford dealership. Yells at the customers and dares his boss to fire him. Uses words like “nigger” and “faggot” around me, but I’ve learned not to rise to the bait. He loves my sister—they’ve been married 30 years—so I have to give him that.

“Little Mike”: K and MP’s older son, 25, with whom I bonded big-time when he was 14, the last time I saw him. Very sensitive and funny. (K said she didn’t know where he got his humor and brains; Barb said, “From his aunt.” [That would be me.]) He’s now an enormously large person, hence the irony of “little.” Works in Madison as a “fire equipment designer” (?), has two kids I’ve never met. He couldn’t get off work to come up for the funeral, so I didn’t get to see him.

Joshua: K and MP’s younger son, 21. Last time I saw him, when he was 10, we couldn’t relate at all. He was quiet, lost in little Mike’s shadow, but lo and behold he has come out of his shell, is almost as big as little Mike, wears several earrings and has a shaved head. We bonded on sight. He said I was a worthy replacement for his witty brother. Works at Marinette Marine, making parts for ships. Would rather be a long-distance trucker, but wife Jana is opposed.

The grand tour

On the morning after I arrived, we went out with K and MP to their favorite breakfast spot. K had called it a “dive,” but I didn’t see anything wrong with it, so I started to say, “Why do you think this place is a dive?” Fortunately, I noticed that the owner was talking to MP a few feet away. Whew! Open mouth, stop from inserting foot just in time. Afterward, we dropped MP off at home, and the three of us took a tour of our old homesteads. I had dreaded seeing the old neighborhood on Bay de Noc Road—I knew it had changed a lot, and I thought I couldn’t bear seeing strangers living in MY HOUSE and in my aunt and uncle’s house next door. (They sat with me at Mom’s funeral, and now they’re both dead, too.) But when I saw the man-made lake and the expensive houses that have replaced the woods where I spent hours in serene solitude, picking buttercups and violets, it was no big deal. It didn’t feel like mine anymore, but it was as if I’d already let go of it without noticing. It was just strange to consider that “rich people” (lawyers and doctors) now saw our old neighborhood as desirable. When we lived there, it was anything but. Our only neighbors—besides our aunt and uncle and their molester sons—were the Salewskys (on the land where my mother grew up), the Calcarys (house gutted by fire years ago, finally being remodeled), old Mr. Bael (in a little green shack), and Wallenders’ dairy farm.

I know this isn’t an original thought, but it’s too bad you can’t appreciate your environment more when you’re young. I loved the outdoors back then—the woods, the cedar grove, the sand hill, the sand road, the creek running through the cow pasture—but I only appreciate now how much freedom I had to wander and be alone.

We also drove over to North Shore Drive to see our first house, though I was the only one old enough to remember it. I wanted to stop and knock on the door and ask if we could come in and look around, but my sisters wouldn’t do it. It’s a nice two-story house at the corner of Highway 35 and a one-block street that ends in a tree-shrouded enclave called Northwood Cove. We drove back into the “cove” to check it out. The names of the three families who live there in luxurious seclusion are carved on a wooden sign at the entrance. How quaint. They have private beaches (on Green Bay off Lake Michigan), right next to Henes Park beach, where the hoi polloi go swimming. When I was a kid, I would cut through the cove to get to the public beach, and walking by the huge house where the Mars family lived, I was hardly able to conceive of having such riches. One of their kids, also named Mary, seemed as exotic to me as a character in a fairy tale. I thought she must have a perfect life.


Of course we had to check out the park, so we drove in and made the familiar loop that gives you a stunning view of the bay after you round the first curve. (No picture, unfortunately. Peggy, you have to come back and take one.) The beach, which was my favorite place on earth when I was a child, now looks impossibly small.


Another view of the bay


(All photos by P. DuPont.)

A few nights before I got the call about Skip’s death, I dreamed that I was trying to go into Henes Park but there was a huge concrete wall blocking the entrance, and I could only see the tops of trees beyond it. There was a big sign on the wall that said, “DEAD.” I’m not saying it was a premonition, or at least not a premonition about Skip. I think it had more to do with transformation —the death of the past that I had constructed out of selected memories.

One of the great things about having siblings is retelling all the stories you remember from your semi-shared past. Since K and Barb are 6 and 8 years younger than me, we were always at different stages of development, so we often have different memories of the same event. K remembered when I babysat them and made homemade French fries and pulled them down the linoleum hallway on a rug. (“What a great older sister I was!,” I exclaimed.) Barb remembered me and K repeatedly tossing her Raggedy Andy doll up on the roof (rhymes with hoof). Mom had to keep climbing up there to get it down, until she finally said it could stay up there and rot for all she cared. And it did. Barb said she would stand there looking up at it and cry. I had to take it back about being a great older sister, even though I don’t remember doing such a thing and she could have been making it up.

I was surprised to learn that Mom always bought Barb and K the same items of clothing, except K would get it in pink and Barb would get it in blue. Funny, I always had to wear brown. Also, Barb got the Raggedy Andy doll whereas K got Raggedy Ann. I have no idea why K was dubbed the “feminine” one. She turned out to be a broad-shouldered hard worker who built her kids’ bunk beds. Barb is now the girlier-girl, with a house full of dainty, pretty things, but a lot of that was Skip’s doing. Maybe Mom was attempting to do some gender retraining, having completely failed with me.

After driving around for a couple hours, I suggested we stop at the local drive-in for a hamburger. Barb and K were incredulous. “When we eat breakfast, we usually don’t eat lunch.” I protested that I had to eat three times a day, which they thought was strange. From then on, whenever I heard Barb mention my name to people who stopped by the house or called on the phone, she’d be saying. “My sister Mary is here from California. She has to eat three times a day.” It became my freakin’ identity. I did convince them to stop for lunch, though all they had were malts and deep-fried cauliflower (!).

Later, Barb drove me over to the high school to meet the woman I’ve been corresponding with about the $1,000 scholarship I donated. I realized that it was that sudden brainstorm to send the money back there instead of donating to any number of worthy causes in the Bay Area that laid the groundwork for this very visit.

Barb and I stayed up until 3:30 in the morning most nights I was there, sitting in the computer room (the only cool room in the house) and talking about everything under the sun, from family gossip to probability theory. One of my fears had been that I wouldn’t know how to be with her, considering how much she loved Skip and… I want to say “how much I didn’t,” but that would make me look like a real jerk, so I won’t. But she didn’t have to be treated like a fragile doll. Skip had already survived four or five heart attacks and had been living on borrowed time for years. In fact, every morning when she woke up, she’d check to see if he was still breathing. So she was obviously grieving but not self-pitying or in shock. She cried and laughed as the spirit moved her, and we all just went with the flow.

One night we talked about the molestation K and I had suffered at the hands of our cousins. Barb hadn’t known about it, and said it hadn’t happened to her. She told me that one of the cousins was convicted of molesting his girlfriend’s daughter and is reputed to be in prison now. Later, I had an epiphany about the abuse thing: K and I, as adults, have pretty good lives. (I turned gay, and she married an asshole, but other than that….) We were obviously deeply affected by what happened to us, but our cousins are much worse off—between them, they’ve had several bad marriages, debilitating migraines, multiple sclerosis (like my father), bad employment histories, and at least that one putative prison sentence. This really messes with my assumption that the molestee is the only victim, that the molester gets off scot-free. This is huge, and I’m still processing it.

The funeral

The funeral was on Tuesday. Barb and Skip weren’t church-goers, so she asked the minister of some good friends of theirs to conduct the service at the funeral home. First, there was a 3-hour visitation period. Barb was busy talking to people, most of whom we didn’t know, so K and MP and I tried to stay out of the way. We sat together in a foyer to be less conspicuous, but Mike (being an asshole) and K (being a giggler) and I (being I) kept having to shush each other when we got too rowdy. Maybe it’s the McKenney influence, but I think it’s perfectly natural to go giggly after someone has died, even when you loved them. After my mother’s funeral, Barb and Skip drove me to the airport, and as we walked into the terminal, laughing hysterically about something or other, I realized that I had to present my “bereavement certificate” at the ticket counter to get the discounted fare. It was all I could do to keep a straight face as I said, “Um, my mother died….” Death punches all the emotional buttons, not just the socially acceptable ones.

At one point, K was saying how much she admired Barb for handling everything so well. She said to MP, “If it were me, and this was your funeral, I’d be afraid… [short pause]… that no one would come.” This was so true that we all started laughing, even MP. Then, of course, we had to sober up fast.

There wasn’t much to the funeral service except a long sermon masquerading as a eulogy. The borrowed preacher turned out to be a born-again. The bulk of his peroration was about Our Lord Jesus Christ and how we have to accept Him as our personal savior or go to hell. Naturally, he blamed Eve for everything. I wished he’d hurry up and finish, but he had an Agenda. He got most of the crowd to recite “The Sinner’s Prayer” with him. (I AM A SINNER….) I had never heard of it, and, strangely, he didn’t seem to know it by heart either. He said, “I don’t know the exact words, but it goes something… like… this…..” And I had this immediate, vivid fantasy of him taking a top hat and cane out from behind the lectern and dancing sideways past the casket, “Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gaaaal….”

The whole service was surreal, and it wasn’t all my imagination. Skip’s elderly aunt Dell was there, and she was the first to speak up and tell the minister he was speaking too softly. So he raised his voice but not enough, apparently, because every few minutes, she’d loudly announce, CAN’T HEAR ANYWAY. Instead of 100 people droning I AM A SINNER, I would have preferred that we all chant CAN’T HEAR ANYWAY. The cadence and repetition were quite pleasing, as long as you weren’t related to her and trying to keep her quiet. One of Skip’s cousins was sitting between Aunt Dell and Aunt #2, whose name I don’t know. This aunt kind of slumped down in her seat at one point, and Cousin whispers, “Are you OK?” Aunt #2 bellows WHAT’D YOU SAY? and Aunt Dell chimes in, WHAT’D SHE SAY? Cousin gets a piece of paper out of her purse and writes “Are you OK?” and shows it to Aunt #2. Aunt #2, naturally, wants to know, WHAT’S THAT SAY? followed closely by Aunt Dell, WHAT’S THAT SAY?

Finally, it was over. We had to hang around so everyone could go up and pay their respects to Barb again, and at one point the preacher came over to me and began a who’s-on-first sort of conversation. He wanted to know “who was the oldest.” I said I was. He said, “I thought Skip was the oldest.” I could see where this was going, but I said noncommittally, “Skip was one year older than me.” So of course he said, “How can you be the oldest if Skip was one year older than you,” and I had to point out that I was, in fact, Barb’s sister, not Skip’s. I wanted to add, “I have to eat three times a day.” He was embarrassed, but it was only the beginning of his humiliation, because I purposely drew him into a conversation about religion. I asked him all the hard questions, to which he had all the easy answers.

Me: What about the Jews?

Preacher: The whole Jewish Nation will have to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior or they will all go to hell.

Me: What about homosexuals?

Preacher: Sinners. They will go to hell also. Marriage is a holy union between a man and a woman.

That was basically his whole message: “Everyone but me and my fellow fanatics is going to hell.”

The surprise for me in all this, and the reason I kept the conversation going, is that I’ve always had a hard time having an “agreeable disagreement” with anyone whose beliefs are wildly different from mine—especially when their wildly different belief is that I’m doomed to burn for eternity. But I felt calm, contained, and fearless.

Me: There are many major religions in the world that see things differently. Who are you to say that this book, written by men [and I should have said, translated by other men, from ancient languages about which there is much dispute as to the meanings of certain important words], is the one true word of God?

Preacher (opening his Bible, itching to read me some scripture): Because the Bible tells me it is!

Me (noting the tautology of his argument: the Bible is God’s word because the Bible says so): I have my own experiences, my own understanding, and my own beliefs. But I don’t go around trying to scare people by telling them they’ll go to hell if they don’t agree with me.

Preacher: I know it sounds narrow-minded…. [changing the subject] Evolution is a fairytale!

Me: I think what you’re telling me is a fairytale.

Despite our restrained and polite manner, this conversation really had nowhere to go. We would either devolve into a chorus of “Is not!” “Is too!” Or perhaps, on his part, “You’ll go to hell!” and on my part, “CAN’T HEAR ANYWAY.” I noticed Barb was gathering her things and getting ready to leave, and I was tired of playing cat with this clueless mouse anyway, so I said, “Well, I’m going to have to….”

But he was getting feverish, determined to save me from the inferno. He hit on a new argument.

Preacher: It MUST be a young earth, because in 1830 [somebody] measured the sun and discovered it’s shrinking by 5 feet per year!

Me: ????? I really have to go now.

Preacher: Can we continue this back at the house?

Me (in thought bubble over head: Shit! I forgot about the de rigueur post-funeral snacks!) No, sorry.

I stand up to make my exit, but he wants to sum up:

Preacher: Let me just say this: God loves you, and He has a plan for your life.

Me (thinking this through to say exactly what I believe): I know I am loved… and that there’s a plan for my life—can we agree on that?

Preacher (sly bugger): Yes—God loves you, and He has a plan for your life.

Back at the house, he left me alone and I sat out on the back deck with the (adult) kids who were smoking up a storm. We ate ham and cheese on buns and lemon bars and drank Cokes. I told Joshua my vision of the preacher with the top hat and cane, and he cracked up and said what a “cool aunt” I was. God, I love that kid.

Family—no longer the F word

On Wednesday, my last day there, we took Joshua and Jana out to Joswiak’s tavern for hamburgers and pizza (me happily inhaling the smell of stale beer). Later there was an impromptu grand finale just before dark when we all ended up down the road from Barb’s where Aaron was chain-sawing some tree trunks. A few years ago, Barb and Skip had been feeding the deer in a large vacant lot across the road until the city came and shot the deer. So they bought the land and created a park Skip called “Barbaraland.” They put in a huge lawn, picnic tables, a fire pit, and stacks and stacks of firewood. It’s mostly for their own family’s use, but now and then they host “A Day in the Park” for anyone to come and eat hotdogs and play games.

I hadn’t been down there yet, so we walked over to see it. K and MP, who live a couple miles away, rode by on their bikes and joined us. Skip’s cousin Bruce roared up on his motorcycle. Summer, the 7-year-old, and a whole passel of other kids came along. (Summer had finally started opening up to me. When Brian introduced me to her as “Aunt Mary,” she said, “I already have an aunt Mary” and ostentatiously ignored me. But then she and A.J. and the little kids kept ending up in the computer room with me, and we had a good time riffing about silly things and looking up Pokemon-related websites, and it was all of a sudden jolly good fun to be an aunt—a GREAT-aunt, no less.)

So we were all standing in the road, watching for the occasional car, as Aaron cut up the wood and threw it in the back of his truck, and except for the unbearable noise of the chainsaw and the multitude of mosquitoes, I felt this warm glow, like I was one of the freakin’ Waltons. Even better than that, I felt as if I had suddenly (after only 10 years of therapy!) crossed an invisible line and become an adult. Several years ago I told J that I didn’t see the appeal of being an adult. I wanted to be taken care of, wanted someone to look up to (wanted a mother, let’s face it). I saw adulthood as nothing but an energy drain, a vast wasteland of duty and obligation. But now it was a pleasure and a privilege to have this incipient relationship with 4 new little kids and a reconnection with my grown-up nephews and niece. I promised everyone I’d come back for a visit next June. And I can hardly wait!

A few nights after I got back to California, I was chopping broccoli for my favorite pasta dish; it was after dark, but I had the back door open so Pookie could go in and out; I was listening to “Fresh Air” on the radio, feeling at peace; and I realized that I HAVE EVERYTHING. I meant “everything” in the sense of, well, everything. Most of the things I have could be taken away—material things, relationships, health, life—but this was different. It was like having no boundaries, but with a core that was the “me” I know day to day. I felt BIG, and I remembered someone seeing a vision of Dot after she died in which she filled the whole sky. It struck me that I must be feeling something like the expansion that happens after what we call death, when it turns out (as I imagine it) that the universe you thought you were such a tiny part of is actually inside you. This may sound far-fetched, but it felt totally real, familiar, and deeply reassuring. It was a sense of being infinitely large and yet competent to navigate the small self with the proper boundaries, like with the preacher. Everything felt exactly right and in proportion—as if I could hold the world in my hands but also thread the smallest needle.

When I told this story to J, she immediately understood it as being an experience of “enlightenment,” however fleeting. When I told my psychiatrist, she immediately thought: bipolar. Such are the limits of the medical model.

Barb and I have been e-mailing almost every day since I got back. When she wrote me about her and K and MP celebrating MP’s birthday at Schussler’s and everyone in the restaurant singing “Happy Birthday” to him, I wrote back that I wished I had been there. And I meant it. Strangely, I felt the same way when she wrote me about her recent roofing project.

Yesterday Aaron, Lorraine, Brian, Bruce, and Brian’s friend Aaron H. worked on stripping the roof down to the bare wood. They managed to get the tar paper on as it was supposed to rain today. Today, Aaron showed up at 7:30 a.m. and was surprised when I said good morning to him. I was outside painting an oil base primer on the barn. The weather forecasters predicted rain by late afternoon and snow tomorrow so it had to get done. Bruce came over about 8:00 with the intention of helping me with the painting, but I suggested he help Aaron instead as that was the more difficult and important job…. He helped him until Brian and his friend showed up to pitch in and then Bruce helped me with the barn. The rain came once and we stopped, put the paint away, and only had half the barn painted. The rain was short-lived and so we opened the can and started up again. Lorraine came in and helped with the painting. The roof was on and the barn was painted before the rains came again. We cleaned up the mess in the rain while 6 grandkids played in the dirt pile and were muddy messes from head to toe. It cost about $500 in roofing supplies, pizza, subs, donuts, and pop so I have a roof that should last 20 years for a lot less than it could have cost. Aaron was so tired this morning that he told Lorraine his eyebrows hurt.

[2009 update: It wasn’t a barn-barn, it was a storage shed. No idea where she got the word “barn.”]

That was probably really boring to read. Sorry, but I’m making a point here. As recently as 2 months ago, I would have shuddered to think of such a gathering—not just the discomfort, the rain, and the threat of SNOW, but the enforced socializing, the “boring” conversation and concerns of people who aren’t highly educated, the bonds of family obligation. Home may be the place where (as Robert Frost put it), when you have to go there, they have to take you in, but I always thought of it more as where, when you violate parole, they make you go back in.

But now I’m something of a matriarch—or at least a sistriarch—and I’ve found that I can be seen and accepted there for who I am. They don’t see all of me, but they see what’s important. Anyone you can laugh with until you’re both in danger of peeing your paints is kin—or might as well be. And if I absolutely need to talk about my painting-related insights or, I don’t know, the use of the subjunctive among my scientist authors, I have plenty of friends who can hold up their end of those conversations. I felt like a fish that had been out of water for a long time and was finally back in the pond—and it felt good. The thing is, Thomas Wolfe was only half right: You can’t go home again to the place and time you remember, but if you’re lucky, “home” has metamorphosed into a living, breathing thing that will surprise you and make you want to go back for a visit as soon as the #@?!!#% snow goes away.

Rest in peace, Skip.

[Mary McKenney]

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