Posts Tagged ‘winter’

mary’zine #66: March/April 2014

April 16, 2014


winter wrap-up

I’m feeling pressure to finish this issue before my winter theme falls hopelessly behind the times. We in the upper Midwest are dying to stop complaining about cold weather so we can start complaining about the wind, the brown lawns, and the humidity of springsummer (no longer separate seasons). But considering that it is snowing as I write this (on April 16), it might not be a problem. Temperatures are straining to rise into the 40s (with the 50s surely not far behind), but you never know in these parts. You just never know.

Yes, it’s still winter in the U.P., despite what the calendar says and despite the photos of beautiful flowers and sunrises the West Coasters are sending our way, on the pretext of assuring us that spring will someday come to us as well.

My winter stories this year have not been ones of clumsy, comical falling down in the snow. I have fallen down (clumsily), don’t get me wrong, but it hasn’t been very funny at all … (see mary’zine #31 for some knee-slappers.) … partly because I have an even harder time getting up than I used to. I fell on the back steps but had the railing to hold on to as I hauled myself up. I fell at the end of my front walk after attempting to shovel a narrow (1 shovel-width) path for the mailman. Fortunately, the mailman happened to be standing right there, and when I stuck my hand out to be pulled up, he really had no choice. As I harp on constantly, the city snowplow comes through and shoves the snow off the road and onto whatever surface happens to be in the way, preferably a surface that has already been cleared. And there’s a general understanding—or maybe it’s a law—that you’re not to dump what is now your snow back into the road.



this was taken somewhere in Canada; so yes, it could be worse.

The driveway poses a bigger problem than the front walk, because, though it’s not very long, my mighty Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo doesn’t have a lot of traction when the snow is deep or the icing on the cake is actual ice. My usual method of making the driveway passable is to power through with the Jeep, back and forth until the tracks are deep enough to guide me in and out of the garage. But with the massive snowfalls we’ve been getting, combined with the city plow’s habit of building snow banks in front of every egress, an oddly sturdy hump of snow and ice has developed at the end of the driveway, so when I power out, there’s quite a stomach-lurching backwards drop at the end. I always have to remember to quickly move my foot to the brake so I don’t go too far and get lodged in the neighbor’s mound of road snow.

The other day I had to clear out three areas: front walk, driveway, and a circle in the back yard to dump a bag of sunflower seeds so the birds and squirrels don’t have to make snow tunnels to try to get sustenance. I was exhausted after doing the front walk, so I went inside and took a 3-hour nap. Then I forced myself to do some major shoveling at the end of the driveway, but the snow had gotten pretty high. The spirit was willing, but the flesh it took to shovel the snow out of the way of the Jeep tracks was weak. Actually, the spirit wasn’t very willing, either. Then I went to do the power-out thing. I managed to go back and forth a couple times, but when the Jeep slid out of the tracks, I panicked and managed to lurch into the side of the garage door and it was good-bye, passenger side view mirror.

An even bigger problem is that the ground has frozen way farther down than is usual. There’s a danger of the pipes in individual houses freezing, but even worse is the possibility that the entire water relay system will freeze up. Therefore, we’ve been told to keep water running from one faucet continuously, even after warmer temperatures make us forget all about our hoary winter.

I got a postcard from the city about this, but only after the citizenry debated in the newspaper and on Facebook what was going on and what exactly we were supposed to do about it. Various people “heard” things, such as that households south of 38th Ave. did (or did not) have to keep their water running. Someone posted that she lives north of 38th Ave. (as I do) and was told that she had to keep her water running. So I called what is euphemistically named “Infrastructure Alternatives” but is really “Waste Water,” as the man who answered the phone wearily confirmed. He asked for my address and told me I didn’t have to keep my water running. But the buzz grew louder that the whole town was supposed to keep their water running, and I eventually got an official postcard saying as much.

So then the question was: How much water? Word went out that the stream should be “the width of a pencil.” That didn’t sound right, because in the olden days it was always described as a “trickle.” Then I came across a website from a Green Bay TV station that said it should be the width of “a pencil lead.” That’s a very different thing. But apparently no one else noticed the discrepancy, and the “pencil” people won out over the “lead.” This policy is in effect until further notice, since warm weather above ground won’t do enough to thaw the earth below. We’re still having the occasional snowfall and single-digit temperatures. And I still have a ski jump at the end of my driveway.



seeds of gratitude

The birds must think they know
That the Bird gods blessed them with this bounty
Spread upon the hard snow.

Do they take it as their due to grow?
Or do they feel a burst of love
When they spot the seeds below—
This mysterious gift—unbidden—fallen with the snow?

Or am I the one who’s grateful for us all—
welcoming with a glad eye the
who comes alone at dusk
and cautiously, disbelieving, approaches
the abundance, a surfeit of love and trust.



I don’t claim to be a poet, but sometimes I can fake it pretty good. The first poem I ever wrote was also about a bird. For high school English I wrote a rambly true story in free verse about going for a walk and finding a dead bird. It was sentimental—of course—but at least there was feeling in it. My friend, a wannabe sophisti-cat, made fun of me for it, as did the fat girl who wanted to replace me in his affections. This was the era of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, and anything less than howling did not a poem make. Mid-‘60s, it just seemed that all the artists, writers, and poets were men, and 90% of them were tortured existentialists. I had a teacher in college who was such a man, an extremely intense man who moonlighted as a shoe salesman, and he wrote all over my essays with great passion in red pen. Sometimes I think my whole college education was an apologia of 1950s existential guilt and penile hubris. I would still be an English major today, but I’d get to read a wider swath through American and world (and female) literature. But I digress.


strung out on epiphanies

There will be clouds of course. At least that’s what I’ve heard. That you fly through them.
     —a Dutch woman contemplating what her first airplane ride will be like

During my first airplane ride (Menominee > Lansing, 1964), I had what may seem like a mundane epiphany: that the sun is always shining, despite the low cloud cover that seemed like a permanent part of my world. I “knew” this already, of course, but some knowledge has to be experienced directly.

Recently, I had what seemed like a profound epiphany, but it’s hard to hold on to. I can tell you that it had to do with love, but what hasn’t already been said about love? An epiphany is sudden and starkly real. It’s an experience. I can still feel the effects of this one, but I’m afraid that trying to describe it will just lead to a hackneyed greeting card sentiment fit only for Hallmark’s Sarah Jessica Parker collection.

But I have a cool metaphor to offer, take it or leave it. If I were a string of Christmas tree lights… stay with me… the bulbs shine brightly, but between them are lengths of unglamorous infrastructure to hold them together. Sometimes you’re the bulb, sometimes the cord.

For months now I’ve been thinking about love, sex, anger, forgiveness—what I want, what is (or isn’t) wanted from me—and it’s been a pretty tortured, confusing time. I have deep feelings, but I often don’t know what to make of them, how to accept them, where to direct them. All felt up and nowhere to go. That didn’t come out right.

I described the situation in mary’zine #65: I had a wonderful sexual experience with an old friend, but she declined to take it farther, for very good reasons. I knew I had to accept her decision, but how were we going to continue our friendship? I felt stuck: couldn’t go forward and couldn’t go back. I kept telling myself that it wasn’t about her at all, I was responsible for my own feelings—but how often do you work through something by thinking endlessly about it? In the midst of the emotional muck, I just tried to stay “real” and not push myself in one direction or another.

At a certain point—being open to whatever the truth turned out to be—the clouds cleared and I knew what the problem was. My ego was having a tantrum. I could count on one hand (with a couple fingers left over) the times that my friend had gone against my wishes. My ego was wounded, and all I knew to do was to hide behind the well-used, patched and puttied wall that had been my go-to place for licking my wounds for as long as I could remember. In the past I couldn’t have been so open to seeing a less than flattering side of myself. But years—many years—on this planet have taught me something after all, and I was actually relieved to know the truth.

When I allowed myself to own this truth, my feelings of anger and resentment just dissipated. My other friends were astonished to hear me express such a mature attitude. It’s an ongoing process, of course. Part of me didn’t want to give up my defenses. It was a big deal to me, and I didn’t want to just drop it and never speak of it again. So much for my mature attitude. I wanted to keep her on the hook, I didn’t want the elephant in the room to become invisible. I felt a bit like George Costanza on Seinfeld, when he didn’t get credit for buying the “big salad” for Elaine because George’s friend handed it to her and was graciously thanked. The genius of that show was that it highlighted the pettiness we all feel at times. On Seinfeld there was famously “no hugging, no learning.” But the universality of the characters’ selfishness was a lesson for the viewers if we were willing to take it in.


I have often wished, frivolously, that the birds who come to my back yard to dine and bathe would come to trust me and not flee when I open the back door carrying a heavy bag of seeds and a watering can. In an ideal world, they would realize that I’d never harmed or threatened them, that I was the source of their bounty. As in the Disney world of Snow White, they would fly chirping around my head as they crowned me with garden flowers. I know it’s just a harmless fantasy. But if I’m feeding them out of love, it makes no difference that I’m not being thanked or seen as the giver, the provider.


Without warning, I had one glorious day when I got it. I glowed with the feeling, with the knowledge, the long-sought epiphany. Love isn’t to be found outside myself, it’s in me, it is me. I don’t love X, Y, or Z: I love. In our hearts we are like those worms that are both male and female. Each one of us is holographic, we embody everything. Looking for love in all the wrong places? It’s all right there, in you! You can put it out or you can take it in, but you don’t need to be thanked, appreciated, affirmed, over and over again. You are the source, or I should say the conduit. If we can just be, love exudes from us like the fragrance of a flower. We think we can shut it off, but it can’t stay shut for long. It can be a deluge, a downpour, an outpouring—or it can be like the pencil-width stream that continually trickles down the pipes to thaw the frozen earth—or heart—on which we live.



love, everywhere

It’s one thing to have a private epiphany and the feelings that go with it, but then there’s the world and other people: Real Life. My money where my mouth is.

In the almost 10 years since I moved back home (“Back in the USUP”), I’ve often lamented that I don’t have friends here. It’s great to spend time with my sisters, but it’s nice to have other connections as well. I’m friendly but not quite friends with a number of people: my contractor and his wife, a server at my favorite restaurant, my haircutter, my dental hygienist (now that’s a first!), various people who I’m happy to see and who seem to be happy to see me. I’ve been limited in my idea of what a friend is. Leaving my cozy nest and going out into the world, I don’t always have a great experience, but I’m often surprised at the connections. My last two encounters with Karna, who cleans my teeth, have been delightful. I’m at a disadvantage in that situation, of course, because I often can’t talk because her hands are in my mouth, but believe me, I take advantage of every time she pauses or turns to look at my chart. And even when I can’t form words, I can laugh in response to her funny comments and stories. I don’t even remember what we talk about, but in one of our sessions I told her, during a 3-second break in the action, “I’m having fun!” And I could tell she was too. Last time, referring to my sense of humor, she told me, “You are dry, Mary.” I was saying I maybe shouldn’t have told Dr. Aschim that one time that I felt like I was doing all the work. But I have this quirky, risk-taking side, which my mother also had (you might be surprised to hear this if you’ve read my “autobiography” of her). It means that I might say something inappropriate at times, but the risk is usually worth it. I may leave in my wake a number of people who are shaking their heads and thinking to themselves, “That’s a weird one,” but since my heart is in the right place, I’m coming across more people who “get me.” Isn’t that the ultimate in relationship, regardless of what level it’s at?

The computer and the phone are essential parts of my life here. I have regular conversations with my faraway friends P, T, and B, and online a strange thing has happened: Among my Facebook friends there have emerged some real friends, even though I haven’t met them in person. Even in “social media,” feelings come through loud and clear. A lot of it involves bantering: I can spend more than 2 hours having a conversation on private messaging with one person at the same time that I’m responding to 2 or 3 other people who are Liking or Commenting on or Sharing things I or they have posted. The range of connection covers the whole spectrum of human relationship, from barely conversant to casual to intimate. You may dispute the possibility of intimacy, but it’s there. Many connections are based on politics, cats, street art, the weather, commiseration over common problems, and bonding over joys and triumphs. I used to think that all interaction on Facebook had to be superficial by definition… but people find each other. The beauty and the voluntary nature of contact allow for freely made associations and surprising discoveries.

One of the people I’ve connected with responded enthusiastically to one of my paintings, some of which I’ve posted online. We had already established that we’re kindred souls, so I told her I sometimes give away my paintings but the person has to ask. I gave her an out by saying that she might like the painting a lot but not want to have it on her wall. The requisite “are you sure”s and “what do you want for it”s were quickly dispensed with, and finally she said, “I want it. And I want it on my wall.” So after tearing apart one room and two closets looking for it, I sent it to her the next day. She loves it. She’s happy. I’m happy. She doesn’t live here, so I may never meet her in person, but I feel like I have a friend for life. Lesson learned: If you put yourself out there, friends and meaningful connections can pop up not only in “all the old familiar places” but in unexpected places as well.


and sometimes… love hurts

My cat Luther just bit my thumb as I was trying to balance him on my lap so that I could reach the keyboard. I try to keep my fingers away from his mouth and firmly remind him, when he gets too close, “No biting!” But he hasn’t gotten the message. He doesn’t seem to do it out of anger, it’s more that he just finds me delectable. If I were to collapse at home and die, I would fully expect him and Brutus to gnaw me to pieces… not out of malice but out of whatever animal logic tells them it’s the right thing to do.

Luther has a chronic bladder infection and has had at least 3 surgeries to remove jagged stones. After the last one, about a week ago, Dr. A said he wouldn’t survive another one. This is devastating news, of course. I now have to wait and see what happens and decide when his quality of life has declined irreversibly. He’s been through a lot and is not exactly welcome at the vet clinic. One female vet told me, when I brought him in for an emergency after hours, that she and Luther “don’t like each other” because he’s “nasty.” Through angry tears I said, “He’s not nasty, he’s scared to death!” She apologized, but I could tell she wasn’t convinced. But ol’ Dr. A takes him in stride.

When I got Luther home after his latest surgery, he couldn’t walk straight for several hours, and when he could, he tried to get away from me by scooting under the bed. At about 24 hours, I petted him and said his name gently. He always responds to his name, but this time he turned his head away. I don’t know how much of his behavior is emotionally based, or if I’m just imagining what he’s feeling. At one point I went to check on him, and he was splayed out in the litter box. When he realized I was there, he pulled himself halfway out, presumably to escape from me again. I know it’s not really personal, but it’s hard to take. I was telling one of my friends on Facebook how he’d been acting since coming home, and the minute I sent the message, Luther came walking over to me and rubbing on my leg and purring. I wanted to think we were having a mind meld where he knew what I had just written about him. Anthropomorphism: a chronic state in which animal lovers can’t let their pets (or their backyard birds) be who they really are. We try to impose our feelings and expectations on them, as though the actual bond, visible or not, between us and them isn’t enough. I am going to try to be with Luther for the time he has left and not dwell on the inevitable. Easier said than done. But he’d better not bite me again.






in love and gratitude,






mary’zine #58: October 2012

October 12, 2012


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


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


long day’s journey into Neenah

                         Neenah, Wisconsin      


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


the local nooz

(source: my niece)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


new doctor

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

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


hard times

From  9-20-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… And presumably their stock tips.

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

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

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


(this is already dated material, but whatever)

I finally got to sit outside on my back porch…

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

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

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


(Mary McKenney)


mary’zine #49: April/May 2011

April 28, 2011

if I had a hammer…

A couple of years ago, a church here in town had a sign out front at Easter time that read, “We use duct tape, God used nails.”

Now the sign reads, “We tried to use nails, but he got loose.”

Is this not the essence of vulgarity? (“morally crude”; “lacking in cultivation, perception, or taste”). The Easter bunny has more dignity.

Happy Spring!

but first… say good-bye to winter

Its being April already—almost May!—I thought I had overshot the winter window for writing about wet, cold weather. But we had snow on the 15th, and again on the 19th and 20th, so we’re still in its thrall. As I write this, it’s 46 degrees and I have a window open. The snow is gone, for now. I watch every day for signs that the buds will come out on the trees soon, and flare green.

The House Was Quiet on a Winter Afternoon

 Someone was reading in the back,

two travelers had gone somewhere,

maybe to Chicago,


a boy was out walking, muffled up,

alert on the frozen creek,

a sauce was simmering on the stove.


Birds outside at the feeder

threw themselves softly

from branch to branch.


Suddenly I did not want my life

to be any different.

I was where I needed to be.


The birds swirled in the dusk.

The boy came back from the creek.

The dead were holding us up

the way the ice held him,

helping us breathe the way

air helps snowflakes swirl and fall.


And the sadness felt just right,

like a still and moving wave

on which the sun shone brilliantly.

 —David Young

(Reprinted with permission of the author)

you don’t need a weatherman…

My sister Barb called one evening in early March to ask if my “hatches were battened down”: We were due to get hit by a big winter storm within the next 6 or 7 hours. “Oh?” I asked, only vaguely aware of the thing called “weather” taking place outside my cozy homestead.

About a year after I moved back to my hometown, she had called with another weather warning, this time about a tornado that was whirling and dervishing its way across northern Wisconsin and the U.P. I took her seriously and ended up in the downstairs bathroom, sitting in the tub on a comforter (wishing I’d brought a book), two cats closed in with me along with their litter box, food and water. I had my radio tuned to the weather channel, and the ominous, staticky voice (as if carried on radio waves from a ship on a distant ocean) kept announcing at-risk counties and specific deadlines (8:15 to 8:45) past which you could breathe a sigh of relief, assuming the tornado had not already whisked you and your pets and lawn furniture above the tree line. Luther was pretty copacetic—he’s a born follower—but Brutus was literally climbing the walls. At one point, sensing movement above my head, I looked up to see him hanging straight down, by his claws, from a swinging cabinet door. Hang in there, baby! So we hung in there until the weatherman announced the all-clear. I vowed never to be led down this bad-weather path again by my well-meaning sister.

But in this case, it was just snow on the way, predictable and fluffy. I had an hour before Van’s IGA closed, so I ran (drove) down there, delightedly rationalizing to myself that though I had plenty of “real” food on hand… egg salad, fresh bread, penne with Italian sausage, tomatoes, and cream (which I had cooked myself, personally!), and broccoli… if I couldn’t get out of my driveway the next day I would be seriously bereft of snacks. I knew, in the rational part of my brain, that it wasn’t going to be a huge deal, my nephew would plow me out and I could surely last 24-48 hours without potato chips, but the reptilian brain that’s addicted to said thin slices of spud and sea salt took the weather warning ball and ran (drove) with it. I stalked the aisles of the little store, assessing the best bang for my buck: Ruffles, Doritos, chocolate chip cookies? I needed eggs anyway, so I got those, and, in the spirit of “gettin’ while the gettin’s good,” picked up some breakfast sausage too, because I didn’t want to be caught without a source of protein. I took a stroll past the freezer section, eyed the Mackinac Island Fudge ice cream, but kept on walking, proud of this minor act of restraint.

I’m reminded of Anne Lamott describing her desperate purchases of alcohol back in the day. For better or worse, I’m my mother’s daughter more than my Irish alcoholic father’s. In my refrigerator are a few bottles of Bud Light and some raspberry-flavored Smirnoff that I bought longer ago than I can remember, plus a half bottle of gin in a cupboard that a houseguest left behind. It never occurs to me to drink any of them.

So… I slept for a few hours, and when I woke up the snow was coming down in droves, the poor birds were pecking around, trying to unearth (unsnow) the seeds and nuts they remembered from yesterday, and mourning doves were lined up on the fence, quite content, it seemed, to be sitting in a fluffy downfall, knowing that spring was near despite all evidence to the contrary. I don’t envy them their need to scavenge in harsh conditions, but, Ah, the beauty of flight, to live above it all.

The snow fell and the storm passed. Was it too soon to hope for signs of spring?

Yes, it was. Father Snow—or is it Mother who covers us with those cold but beautiful blankets?—was not done with us yet. Two and a half days after “the first day of spring”—an impractical joke that is played on us Midwesterners every year—we got the worst storm I’ve seen here, a total white-out. And it was the oddest thing: The temperature had been hovering just above to just below freezing, so Nature split the difference and brought us loud cracking thunder just as the snowish-rain or rainish-snow began to fall. For the next 36 hours it sounded like all hell had broken loose, as blinding blowing gusts of snow flung themselves against the windows, creating intricate crystal-doily designs.

In the daylight hours, I watched the birdfeeders blowing back and forth from white-thick branches, the little birds holding on to the perches for dear life and the bigger ones hunched together in the trees, feathers ruffling like petticoats in the wind. I felt especially bad for the one cardinal that comes around in the wintertime, contrasting gloriously red against the driven snow, because it has no one to be of a feather with. The squirrels are plentiful, but it’s hard to make out their relationships: no coats of a different color, and when we think they’re playing?… chasing one another up and down the tree trunks? No, it’s life and death, a Masterpiece Theatre of drama with a plot that’s impossible to follow. Is it brother versus brother out there, like in the Civil War? Are all the womensquirrelfolk back in some hidey-hole, keeping the home fires burning? Is it a tragic story?… or just one of the many quirks of Mother Nature, who put large populations of incompatible creatures on the earth and then made them compete for limited resources?

I was snowbound for an entire day, and when I woke up the morning after that, the sun was shining on the white wonder windless winter land. The birds were back in force, pecking holes in the snow so they could feast on the fat seeds that lay beneath. I stood at one of my upstairs windows and spotted a mixed flight of birds—united in their birdiness regardless of feather identification—rise up and flee en masse. That usually means they have seen me peeking through the blinds, but this time, right at eye level, I saw a small hawk sitting imperiously in the birch tree, its head swiveling and eyes beadily scanning for prey. It either didn’t notice me or wasn’t bothered—human-behind-glass, big deal. I watched the beautiful creature until it swooped down and through my yard and disappeared from sight.

I know that, to truly appreciate Nature, I’m supposed to be out there getting cold and wet and buffeted by the harsh wind, being One With It All. Maybe this is hubris, but I feel like we’re already One. I may be like a small Russian doll inside my house-within-a-bigger-Doll, seemingly uninvolved, unexposed, a creature intent on her own comfort, abstractly appreciating but not truly interacting with that which is “outside” me. But in a larger sense, none of it is outside, it’s all inside me, all the feeling that comes through sight and sound and caring-about and caring-for those innocent winged and fluffy-tailed ones that feast on my largess. I am practically bursting with involvement, my heart exposed, they are not background to my life, they and Brutus and Luther, my cats, are integral to my life, as are the sad-dog, sad-cat, sad-elephant or -horse pictures in magazines. They have a physical existence apart from me (especially the ones on paper), but I take them into my heart—no, they are already there, we coexist in our animalness, our together-on-this-earth-ness, our depth of love and hopeless signaling to or fleeing from one another, like birds of a different feather but One flightless shared soul.

changes in l’attitude…

In every pot of ointment soon appears a fly. Your good fortune lies in not needing to forget it or deny it. In every situation hides some creative chance.—Sidney Cox

Lately, the family seams are being stretched a bit. I blame the Republicans and my brother-in-law, not necessarily in that order. During the huge protests in Madison about the rights of public sector workers, there was a mostly unvoiced but palpable tension between the unionized retired teacher (sister Barb) and the nonunionized, still-working factory worker (sister K). Every night on the news, shills for the GOP hammered home the fiction—and the contradiction—that teachers are the New Elite who (a) think they’re better than their family members and neighbors who work in grocery stores and factories—as if Republicans were siding with the “true” working class—but (b) engage in “class warfare” against the poor, misunderstood plutocrats and fat cats. I have to hand it to those guys: They can twist words, and they know just whose neck to twist them around. Bankers are extolled as a class that “performs a wonderful service and creates jobs”—and does it for measly millions in bonuses and golden parachutes. Much is made of teachers working short days and having summers off. But everyone who knows a teacher knows that they rarely have an evening or weekend free of grading papers, planning ways to keep their students interested in class, or dealing with demanding parents. Barb spent at least half of each summer planning for the coming school year because the administrators kept giving her new classes to teach. She was as dedicated to her work and the kids in her charge as anyone I’ve ever known.

Nothing much was said around the family hearth (TV) on Friday nights, but it wasn’t too hard to see what was going on. K muttered that the protesters “couldn’t live there” (the state capitol in Madison) and offered up a coworker’s opinion that they could try Gov. Walker’s budget plan for a year or so, and if it didn’t help the economy, they could go back. Barb and I exclaimed in unison, “They never go back!!” Her statement assumed that the Republicans were just trying to do their best to help everyone get through the hard times. Her naivety was alarming. So there was bad (or at least slightly tainted) blood bubbling just under the surface, but both Barb and I were afraid to push it. K and my nephew believe that unions “do nothing for you but take your money,” so it was strange that they envied other union members who supposedly make too much. There’s not a lot of rationality when the non-college-going members of the family start spouting off. And I’m not being snarky, it’s just a fact that if your information comes only from the local TV news, you’re at the mercy of any well-coiffed reader of a teleprompter. According to one Green Bay news anchor, the teachers were not protesting but merely complaining. Words matter.

In other Wisconsin news, the lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, opined that if gay people are allowed to get married, people will surely want to marry their furniture. (I must have missed those marches.) “Can I marry this table,” she asks, “or this, you know, clock?” I would love to see this, by the way. Right now you can marry a serial killer or a drunk you just met in a bar as long as you have opposing genitalia. But if you want stable relationships, I can think of worse combinations than a guy and a table. (Two guys and a table would, of course, be outlawed.) Inanimate polyamory is another possibility: “And the dish ran away with the spoon” (but two forks? no way!).

A week after this mostly silent, thin-lipped brouhaha, I was uncharacteristically looking forward to seeing my peeps, downing a burger or two or a fish fry, watching some harmless crime shows, and hopefully having a few laughs. When I arrived, everyone else was already there, doing the usual comparison shopping between fast food places: “What are you in the mood for?” “I don’t know, what are you going to get?” Right off the bat I felt uneasy, I don’t know why—like I didn’t belong there. It could be because my nephew’s girlfriend always acknowledges (if you can call it that) my arrival by flicking her eyes over me and then looking away. OK, so she’s “nobody” in the grand scheme of things, but it’s annoying.

A new plan had been announced for Friday nights; now we were each supposed to pay for our own food, rather than take turns paying for everyone. I’m sure this had to do with my questioning MP (brother-in-law, a.k.a. blood-in-law) last week about paying only for his own food, so that (it seemed to me) he never had to spend a penny on anyone else. The “plan” is changed often, because my sister K is all about streamlining; she once suggested that we all eat before we get there, and I suggested that it would be even more efficient if we didn’t get together at all. Gosh, do you think my smart-ass self could be part of the problem?

After we ate our greasy portions of meat or fish, we checked to see what shows they had recorded during the week: not much, because there had been a lot of reruns. It was decided that we would watch “NCIS.”

It’s MP’s “job” (prerogative) to handle the remote… which becomes a problem when he falls asleep, which he does every week. When awake, he fast-forwards through the commercials, or mutes them if we’re watching live TV, but tonight he has to be nudged awake. So he hits the fast-forward button and apparently falls back asleep, because the rest of the show goes whizzing by, way beyond the one commercial break. “You went too far!,” my sisters cry. So he rewinds and then goes practically all the way back to the beginning. “Oh no! We’ve seen this part already!” I make one of my trademark, only slightly barbed, observations: “Maybe someone who doesn’t fall asleep should keep the remote.” He stops the show in the part we already saw (and it wasn’t that good the first time) and stomps out of the room, his usual way of expressing his annoyance with one of us “girls.” Barb hands the remote to K, thinking she can take over, and K says, grimly, “I don’t know how to use it.” And then she adds, “You shouldn’t mess with the guy who runs the TV.” That’s a criticism of me, for stating the obvious and not being willing to enable the man of the house in his delusions of grandeur. She’s quiet for the rest of the evening, and MP never comes back out, so I decide to leave early. Barb gets up to go too. Her approach to MP is not to let him know that he gets to her, so she calls out, “Good night, MP,” as she always does, and I don’t say anything because my attitude is—not to put too fine a point on it—“Fuck ‘im.” If K stood up to him once in a while, he wouldn’t be able to get away with that prima don act. But her attitude has always been that it’s better not to challenge him so as to “keep the peace.” An uneasy peace, if you ask me—if it’s any kind of peace at all.

I’ve been dealing with this situation for 6 and a half years now, with greater or lesser degrees of success…. trying to use humor to deflect his moods… keeping my mouth shut when he makes disgusting remarks about brothers of another color… trying, for the sake of my sister, not to cause a scene. But I know that this is just the “wages of family”—like the wages of sin—not death, but endless cycles of compromise and drama and rebellion, from each according to her ability to cope, to each according to his place in the family dynamic.

This straw having shattered the camel’s aching back, we all realized that something had to change. We agreed to “play it by ear,” and it was understood that we wouldn’t be getting together in the same configuration for a few weeks. The following Friday, Barb and I happily ate at The Landing, dining high on the hog, or at least the chicken—cacciatore and marsala—for a change. We entertained thoughts of future rendezvous at the local medium-to-high-end restaurants in the area: Table 6, Little Nugget Golf Club, Riverside Country Club. If we include Green Bay as a destination, the possibilities are, if not endless, at least more appetizing than the round of fast food places we usually have to choose from.

The following Friday sounded promising, as K, Barb and I were planning a sisters’ breakfast out and shopping. We arranged to meet at Schloegel’s at 8:00 a.m. I got there a bit early and waited in the Jeep for them to arrive… and soon, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but… MP. K had thought he was working that day, but he wasn’t, so she told him he “could come with if [he] didn’t want to be alone.” It felt bizarre to be sitting together in a restaurant so early in the day, especially when we had been expecting a laugh-fest sister-clatch. After breakfast (for which MP paid—reflecting generosity, or his assertion of control?) MP drove us to Peshtigo and Marinette to buy a recliner for Barb and miscellaneous necessities at Shopko and Penney’s for her and K.

I actually ended up buying some beautiful dining room chairs, so the day wasn’t a complete loss. MP stayed in the truck at each store, which I’m sure put pressure on my sisters to hurry through their browsings and purchasings. Oddly, I sat in the truck with him for much of the time, because my legs hurt and I didn’t need anything in particular. He was perfectly amenable; I actually feel very comfortable with him most of the time—it just seemed like he was exerting his control over K (indeed, all of us) by impinging on our sisterly fun.

Is this what being close to someone means—knowing their limitations, their ego-boosting delusions and self-serving grottiness, as well as you know your own? Being able to predict their reactions, their facial expressions, down to the last word and grimace, so that disappointment and a sickening sense of predictability surge up and crush the breath out of you the moment you clap eyes on them, before anyone’s uttered a word?  —Sophie Hannah

As family dramas go, ours is no Downstairs, Downstairs. Or maybe that’s exactly what it is. The complaints are petty, secrecy is prized, and self-awareness is “more honor’d in the breach than the observance.” Conflict is expressed in veiled glances, cold silence, and premature departures. For all my fancy talk and psychological sophistication, I’m as primitive as anyone else. I’d like to find a way to achieve harmony with my bloods and blood-in-law without exposing all the messy differences between us. I want them to be a book I’ve already read and can put down with satisfaction as I sip my glass of wine and perhaps take an aspirin for the slight headache caused by my intense concentration. One of my favorite memories* of college life was being alone in the apartment one night while my roommates were away; I finished reading Katharine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, heated up a can of tomato soup, and then went out for a long walk in the snowy, silent night. I enjoyed the feeling of being immersed in a drama that did not, strictly speaking, involve me… except as an engrossed but disinterested reader in a position to write several pages about it for Dr. Burhans. Literature allowed me to enter into relationships that distracted me from my own life and then to withdraw at The End. With one’s real-life relationships, there seems to be no End. (My mother died 20 years ago, and yet my blood still boils at certain memories of her.)

*I know, it’s pathetic: a favorite memory of college life is a night alone with a book? Welcome to my world.

Funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’… for a little while. —Jeff Bridges, singing in “Crazy Heart”

Yes, news flash: Real relationship is messy, and family relationships may be the messiest of all. The bond that holds us together is stronger than preference or delight; friends may float away if there’s a falling out, but there’s no floating and plenty of falling from the family tree—it’s all guts and no glory, unbreakable but no easier for all that.

The uneasy peace lasts for a few weeks. Barb and I have our Pleasant Valley Fridays, but there’s no clear sense of how things are supposed to change or who’s supposed to make the first move. Finally, we’re invited back, but I’m clear that I don’t want to simply revert to the same routine. There’s talk of going out for Easter brunch, if we can find a good one. Barb keeps me informed of all the news by e-mail, since my sleeping schedule is so erratic that it’s “better not to call.” (I got them to stop “dropping by” years ago.) So that’s a buffer that I cherish.

Then there are two strange occurrences. Though I’ve been grumbling about various annoying aspects of MP, I’m reading the New Yorker one day and come upon an article about a book he’s been waiting to come out for 3 years. In fact, the article is about how everyone has been waiting for it for 3 years: George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons. I cut the article out and mail it to him with a note signed “Love,” along with money for Josh’s last snowplowing of my driveway. It’s not that I decided to make up with him or anything, it was action first, and feeling followed.

Then, within a day of my attempt at rapprochement, MP becomes ill in the middle of the night and is taken by ambulance to Green Bay. It is feared that he has spinal meningitis. Barb e-mails me the news, and I call K to offer to drive her down to the hospital. She thanks me but later passes the news along, through Barb, that my nephew is going to drive her. I had not talked to her since our pseudo sister visit, but there is no hint of discomfort or caution. I have already made a gesture of peace to MP, which he will get when he returns home from the hospital, and the offer of a ride to K is not even a gesture, it’s just plain, down-home assurance: “I’m here if you need me.” Fortunately, MP didn’t have meningitis, it was an infection from a badly administered tetanus shot. The VA works in mysterious ways.

The following Friday, we all took our usual places on couch and recliners, and it was as if nothing had changed—and not in a good way. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I guess I’m still waiting for my creative chance.

Finally, we come to some good news. I underwent a screening for calcium in my heart arteries, and to my amazement, I scored 0%! The nurse couldn’t believe it either; she said she’d trade with me if she could. She went on and on about how great it was, exclaiming, “You’re going to live a long, long time!” And I kid you not, my first thought was, “Oh shit.” She followed that up with, “You’d better get your retirement money together!” Again, “Oh shit.” She was so enthusiastic on my behalf that it made me go all quiet and just nod and nod with a fake half-smile, even though I was thrilled also. Excitable people wear me out. After spending half an hour lecturing me about heart attacks and blocked arteries, etc. (Why? I’m obviously invincible, cardio-wise), she helped me on with my coat, complimented me on it, shook my hand, and walked me partway down the hall to be sure I found the right exit. I half expected her to ask if she could see me again.

I like when I hear something in passing, at random, a peep or a croak almost beyond my awareness, a peripheral vision of the ear. And it sounds so simple, obvious, what-else-is-new, and yet it sums up an essential fact of my being. This happened one day when I was listening to a podcast by the comedian Marc Maron ( It was a simple statement that overeating isn’t about food, it’s about anxiety. Obvious, right? But it struck me, and stuck with me. Later in the day, I was thinking about how Barb was going to drive her son down to the Green Bay airport so he could return to Texas. And I had a familiar feeling of anxiety about her driving in possibly treacherous conditions. And suddenly I connected that feeling to my longtime dread, my constant wondering of, Who’s going to die next? When will the next tragedy strike? My grandmother, with whom I was very close, died when I was 4; my little brother died of leukemia when I was 6; and my father became incapacitated by multiple sclerosis when I was 7; it was as if he had died, because he came home after several months in the VA hospital so changed (physically and mentally) that he didn’t seem like my father at all. For the next few years I could hardly bear to let my mother out of my sight, because for all I knew, this was simply what happened: People died—in droves—dropped like flies—consecutively checked out every couple of years, and the next to go was surely my mother. When she would go down the basement to change a fuse, I would practically hold my breath, picturing her standing in the water that had spilled over from the wringer washer and being struck down by fuse lightning. Of course, there were many other scenarios, infinite ways in which death could come again.

I just thought of this, how my father, who was able to walk with a cane for a few years after his initial diagnosis, was eventually confined to his recliner and a wheelchair. His anxiety (and anger) expressed itself in the same way mine did, but a little more vocally. My mother worked at Montgomery Ward for a while, and he would listen to the radio when she went to work, and if he heard about a car accident happening in town, he would immediately think it was her, and he would get all agitated and call her at work to find out if she was all right. He was also extremely jealous (hey, me too!) and would accuse her of resting her breasts on the card table during our Scrabble games with their “handicapped” friends, supposedly as a way of enticing Vince, who had a milder version of MS. But my dad had an autoimmune disease, what was my excuse? Just growing up in that household, observing how the world seemed to work, how fears and frustrations combined to construct a personality, a point of view? I’ve always assumed that I took my cues from my mother, her passive-aggressive response to a life of hardship and enforced care giving for a man she had wanted to divorce before his illness… not that my circumstances were similar, but I surely adopted another of her defense/attack ploys: eating. Being an observant sponge, I took bits from Mom and bits from Dad and created my own chef’s blend of anger, anxiety, and food substitution.

life is short: eat the Doritos first

I was a skinny kid and adolescent; I weighed only 112 in college. So it wasn’t obvious that I had a thing about food. But I remember, as a teenager, lying on the couch watching “Perry Mason,” and a character saying, “I was so upset, I couldn’t eat.” And I thought, “There’s no way I wouldn’t be able to eat.” And that has proved to be true.

I went to NutriSystem the first time when I weighed 148. And everyone there exclaimed that I didn’t look like I needed to lose weight, but I was trying to nip myself in the bud. I got down to 117, prompting one of my friends to say I looked like a concentration camp victim. Now she’s lecturing me the other way. Of course, the weight slowly piled back on, like snow flakes that look so insubstantial drifting in the air but build up on the ground in minutes. The diet industry will never go away, because the process is stacked against you, like the odds in a casino. You deprive yourself for the period of the diet, and when you’re done and feel invincibly thin, a mouthful of the simplest food tastes like manna: a piece of toast with a bit of butter: heaven! But it’s not long before your taste buds long for Mexican food, or Chinese. And at first it seems you’re getting away with it, because your new pounds come on so slowly, like those snowflakes again. (Is every pound unique, I wonder?) The mantra of the diet industry is that you should change your whole way of eating, yeah, duh. But they count on no one being willing or able to do that. And programs like NutriSystem keep offering better and better tasting food (according to them), so you’re still rewarding yourself with food, just temporarily less caloric.

It feels good to be thin, but more important to me is that when I’m thin I look better, thus avoid (that particular) judgment from others—a judgment that is grossly unfair, but that’s human beings for ya. A thin person who eats like a pig with no visible consequences is envied… but an obese one on a perpetual diet is considered lazy and lacking in self-discipline. Nothing stands in the way of the media excoriating Midwesterners (especially), all that stock footage of headless fat people trudging toward their next meal, presumably. Fatness is immoral. Even pedophiles, though reviled, are understood to not be able to help it.

In a side note, you’ve probably noticed that those shots of the overly large on the evening news are all of white people, in some sort of perverse fear of accusing black people of anything… just as “white trash” is a respectable, widely understood term, but it would be unthinkable to refer to “black trash.” I read recently that the term “white trash” is actually an insult to black people, because if you drop the modifier “white,” then all you have is trash. I don’t buy this. “White trash” is an insult to poor white people, an acceptable target. Poor black people are equally (or more) despised, but it would be so impolite to admit it. Do I have to say this explicitly?—that I’m no apologist for racism: my point is that there are lots of ways that racism in this country has turned from rabid to subtle (but still real), and one of those ways is to divert attention from our uncomfortable feelings about race by attacking poor and working class whites for their (often rabider) racism and overall uncouthness, such as having poor taste in clothes and, you know, being fat.

I’ve always felt that I’m “afraid” to be hungry. It’s not that I went hungry as a child, but I have an association with food as a bulwark against… something…. In concrete terms, it seems that it keeps me from feeling sick. There is a sublime sense of security when my belly is full. So I’m thinking about my constant pursuit of food as a sign of my baseline anxiety. I stay up all night most nights, and so there are long, empty hours when I want to eat. The night after I rediscovered the association between anxiety and eating, I got through the night without going downstairs and raiding the freezer for ice cream bars; it wasn’t what I really wanted. What I really wanted was for no one close to me to ever die again.

Anxiety’s doppelgänger is anger. Another duh, I suppose. But sometimes insights catch you flat-footed, telling you something viscerally that you thought you already knew.

I was thinking about anger one day, and this is exactly how the sentence went in my head: “I don’t know why I’m still so hungry, I mean, angry.” Those words are already forever linked by being the only two words in the English language that end in “-gry.” As with the connection between hunger and anxiety, it helped for a few days to focus on my anger whenever I wanted to eat. But the internal forces demanding to be satisfied greatly outweigh (so to speak) those that are willing to face the truth. You can call it laziness, but I think it has more to do with an overwhelming sense that what your “better judgment” is asking you to do is simply impossible.


finally—family fun!

In our hiatus from Friday nights at K&MP’s, Barb and I usually get together to eat good food and watch quality TV or movies. The night before Easter, we ate at Table 6 (or Ta6le Six, as they like to call it—foiling all attempts at alphabetization). We both had versions of pasta carbonara/alfredo, plus salad. I tried a new sauvignon blanc from Germany, and Barb finally found a wine that was sweet enough for her—a Riesling—also from Germany. We passed on dessert. Then we went back to her house to watch 2 episodes of “Nurse Jackie” that she had recorded; “The King’s Speech,” which I had gotten from Netflix; and “Black Swan,” on Movies on Demand. All were excellent except for “BS,” which was compelling but extremely unpleasant to watch. When it was over, I actually wished I hadn’t seen it.

For Easter—a beautiful sunny day (52 degrees but felt like 70)—Barb and I went out to the country to have dinner with her daughter and her husband and two boys. We had ham, cheesy potatoes, jello salad (but good! with cranberries and walnuts), corn, rolls, lemon cake, and pumpkin bread. I ate exactly twice as much as I should have, then took home the equivalent of another 2 meals and repeated the whole experience later that night.

After dinner, we waddled out to the barn to see their newly acquired baby chicks and ducks. I held a little chick for a long time, stroking its soft yellow head and wishing I could take it home with me. (I don’t think the cats would mind, do you?) The chicks are for eventual egg-laying, but the ducks are pets. The 16-year-old named his duck Bruce Willis (no explanation forthcoming), and the 10-year-old named his Sarge. Since that one is a female, my niece asked him why the name? He said, “Women are in the armed forces, and they can be sergeants.” I thought this was hilarious and amazing. He is an extremely intelligent, loveable, creative kid. His older brother got a job for the summer, working as a receptionist in a nursing home. He aced the job interview when he was asked to waylay a resident who was trying to escape out the front door. He went up to her, asked if he could take her hand, and spoke to her so gently that she went with him without a fuss. He too is highly intelligent, an excellent student, and an athlete. And he and his brother are both avid readers! These lovely boys and their gentle, hard-working father contravene my long-held generalizations about males.

It was a beautiful Easter after all.

 Au revoir! Bon appetit!

[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: #36 March 2009

August 19, 2009

I was talking to Barbara (BK) about the mary’zine the other day, and she mentioned that there’s only so much you can write about shoveling snow. Au contraire.



Snow is a cold war—

My only weapon? Shovel.

I need a blower!

Jim Anderson (still) blows best

[from an e-mail to my sister] I was out shoveling today while a large man was snoblo’g at the red house across the street. I was pretending not to see him so he wouldn’t think I was a damsel in distress waiting to be rescued. He came over and rescued me anyway. Unfortunately, he hit a submerged Eagle-Herald [useless unsolicited newspaper], which put his blo’r out of commission. Oops. I asked him his name and he said Jim Anderson. Hm. I remembered that a Jim Anderson got my Jeep unstuck from the driveway 4 years ago, but I didn’t know he lived around here. (His mother lived in the red house at the time.) This guy lives in the yellow house on the other side of the red one. Aha. So either I live in a Twilight Zone in which all men are named Jim Anderson (and their children are all Princess, Kitten or Bud), or it was the same guy.


dear snow: Blow me

Contrary to popular belief, the Eskimos do not have more words for snow than do speakers of English. Counting generously, experts can come up with about a dozen.”

—Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct

Check out this website for a debunking of the myth that “Eskimos” (Inuits) have an inordinate number of words for snow: You’ll also find the tongue-in-cheek “The Eskimos’ Hundred Words for Snow” by Phil James. Here are just a few:

tlapa………..powder snow

tlacringit….snow that is crusted on the surface

kayi…………drifting snow

tlapat………still snow

klin…………remembered snow

naklin……..forgotten snow

tlaslo……….snow that falls slowly

tlapinti…….snow that falls quickly

tliyel………..snow that has been marked by wolves

tliyelin…….snow that has been marked by Eskimos

hahatla…….small packages of snow given as gag gifts

sotla………..snow sparkling with sunlight

tlun…………snow sparkling with moonlight

astrila………snow sparkling with starlight

clim…………snow sparkling with flashlight or headlight

And then there’s this…


a Winter wRap

Drove my sisters down to Green Bay town

for Mexican food that was mighty good.

We shopped and we roamed and then headed home,

we’d heard it might flurry but we didn’t worry,

it was ‘sposed to be “light,” no, it wouldn’t last,

but it got real white, and it got there fast.

When a semi blew through, removed the road from view,

I was driving blind, but my sisters didn’t mind—

unlike their men, I drove like a hen.

Slow and steady stayed the course;

I only cried “FUCK!” once or twourse.

Didn’t think we were ever in real true danger,

but I sent up a prayer to a babe in a manger.

At least 3 cars had gone off the highway,

and a crash with a semi almost blocked off my way.

It’s the worst darn snow I’ve ever driven in,

and we’re all glad to still be livinin’.

So that’s my rhyme and I do declare,

the heartland is cool but it gets nasty out there.

I gotta get this stuff out of my system! Like the snow itself, it won’t keep!

It was 0 (zilch, nada) degrees when I got up on Xmas morning, but the sun was shining, making everything sparkle. So I bundled up and went out to feed the birds and the squirrels (and the occasional rabbit), fumbling with the heavy bags of wild bird seed, nuts, dried fruit, corn, and sunflower seeds. I poured hot water on the ice in the bird bath—I bought a heater for it, but it needs a little help at these temperatures (plus, my sister the science teacher points out that the basin is copper, so the water freezes faster). I had had to move the bird bath closer to the electrical outlet on the back porch, so it took the birdies awhile to not only find it but to trust that it wasn’t some sort of trap. I looked out my kitchen window a few days ago and was delighted to see 10 or 12 little birds vying for position on the edge of the basin and flapping around in the just-below-freezing water (when I told BK about this, she said they must belong to the Polar Bear Club)—hopping, fluttering, taking tiny sips, trading places every second or two when another bird arrived to push its way in.

While I was out there, I knocked down the woolly mammoth tusk-sized icicles hanging from the rain gutters. I took out a little aggression doing it, because they remind me of my mother taking my picture between two such ice-tusks when I was 15. To her, it was a joke, though I’m not sure what the punchline was. As for me, the proof is in the photo: I’m wearing a babushka on my head, pink-framed nerd glasses on my pimply face, and eyes aimed downward. Needless to say, I am not smiling. Now I see the symbolism. On some level, my mother must have seen it, too. I was a prisoner in the family jail, with bars of ice and a cheerfully cruel captor. When I showed the photo to my therapist years later, she said it made her want to cry. With the wisdom and distance of age, I can dance on the grave of my former self and forgive the heck out of my mother, but that doesn’t change the facts. And, yeah, I know I’m old enough that I should be forgetting all those youthful humiliations, but my life from age 0 to now has a deep root system, it flourishes underground like the affectionately named “Humongous Fungus,” arguably “the world’s oldest and largest living organism,” that covers 37 acres under the U.P. somewhere west of here. It may be invisible, buried, spreading its rhizomorphic DNA out of sight, even out of mind. But “the past” [I suggest] is not a ribbon of highway that retreats from sight in our rearview mirror, here yesterday gone today, it’s all right here, it bisects the earth’s plane and extends down under our feet, not goin’ nowhere until ashes to ashes, fungus to fungus, we join the ancestral colonies of differentiated parallel hyphae and prepare the soil for the “future” ones who will walk up here the way we do now, oblivious, spinning their wheels and dreaming of heaven, looking up, up and away, as though we can ever be rescued from the fate of the earth, the past, the ground of being. I’ve tried to believe life is an illusion, temporary, quirky as a quark and as hard to pin down, puffy and flighty as a dandelion gone to seed. Now I find that I must renounce the metaphorical breathatarianism by which I thought I could live in the mystical state of Mind, zip code 00000, a continuous metamorphosis performed, except when witnessed, while whirling in thin air, or temporarily captured in ice.

By the way, one of the scientists who discovered the “Humongous Fungus” is… Jim Anderson. My God, where does that man find the time?

So I haul out the bags of ice-melting crystals (Ice-No-Mor—really?—did they really gain brand status by leaving off that final “e”?) and clomp through deep drifts around to the front of the house to shovel a path for the mailman. While I’m a-huffin’ and a-puffin’ out there, I just pray to God I don’t die, embarrassingly, of heart failure, landing on my ass in a snowbank where I’ve fallen into dreams of hypothermia. It’s annoying that I have to shovel halfway into the street, because the city plow comes down the middle of the road, gifting all the home-moaners with extra snow piles to clear away by their own hand.

So I’m shoveling away (Jim Anderson doesn’t seem to realize that my house has a front), trying to keep my scarf around my neck and my back to the wind, defying gravity, age, and other physical laws, and I think about how winter is so very Sisyphean—another metaphor for life that does not, somehow, contradict the underground nature of self upon which I just riffed. Above ground, life is the endless rolling of the rock up the hill, the temporary relief at resting from one’s labors on the walk down—or is that part hard on your knees?—and the taking up of the challenge once again. I suppose Sisyphus could choose to lie down and let the rock crush him, but that would be just as pointless as his endless, monotonous effort. And he probably doesn’t have a choice anyway. Looking for meaning and purpose? Life is energy, and energy’s only goal is to keep moving, no questions asked, or only the Big Questions asked but never answered. The Moving Rock rolls (the snow-blower blows), and having Rock-Roll’d and Blow’d, moves on.

Not that it’s all work and no play: the work is the play. Energy thrums from out the universal boiler room down there, the essential, silent center, the secret source of the laboring lunk who, even if he figures out how to move the rock by heavy machinery, computer, or Dianetic mind power, will never cease to move because he is that movement, he is that moment, and his evanescence is not in conflict with his physical, sweating, heaving, short-lived but eternal self.

OK. I’ve finished the feeding, the watering, the shoveling, the sprinkling, and I come inside, breathing heavily, and take off my boots and change my snow-wet pants and sweaty shirt. I scramble some eggs and sit down with toast and orange juice to enjoy the bright white beauty outside the window and watch the birds of a feather—lots of different feathers, actually—where did those pigeons come from?—flock together, perching on the hanging feeders or scrambling over the frosty ground to get every last bit of nourishment before a fitter flitter comes along and runs them off. Few things make me happier than watching the flying and scooting critters scarf up my largess. Of necessity, I am an anonymous donor, because when I go out on the back porch to replenish their supplies, they all fly off in a panic. I’d like some credit—I’d like to have them perch on my shoulder and tweet and fly around my head like Snow White—but virtue is its own reward, or so I’ve heard. Besides, that’s what cats are for. When Brutus curls up in my arms, shifting his weight to make himself into a ball of lightly snoring fur, that’s my recognition, that’s my gratitude, and in my speech before the Academy I will thank the entire animal community and bask in their applause.

So. Are we done with the snow talk?

In a way, I’ve been riffing about the easy stuff while I think about some other things I want to say. In my conversation with BK, she helped me see that there’s another layer to the story of my moving back here to my hometown. The main story, or the first one anyway, was truly a miracle of following my bliss by way of the little hints that directed me back here, and I’ve dined out on that story more than once… not to take anything away from the truth and amazement of it. Talking about it with her, I started crying—crying! for the first time since the December intensive when I was painting Muslims, the Twin Towers, me floating down the Ganges on a burning funeral pyre, the Sphinx, etc. Usually, I just paint myself with body parts hanging out, so who knows what all that was about. Anyway, I was telling BK about not being able to talk to my sister Barb the way I can talk to my friends. Barb’s level of discourse seems to consist largely of long-winded updates and repeated aphorisms she’s relied on for years. Actually, our father did that. He was a bundle of folksy sayings: “I’ve got one foot in the grave and the other foot on a banana peel.” “Cat fur to make kitten britches, ya wanna buy a pair?” He had only so many conversational bullets, and they kept getting chambered one after the other and shot off when some trigger in his brain was pulled. But he had a major disease (MS)—and no education past the 8th grade. And was an alcoholic and had been beaten as a child and survived being shot in WWII! My sister is a college graduate and a jr. high school teacher, but everything she says seems scripted, the origin of the script long since forgotten, and even with not having much new to say, she gives every appearance of having that compulsive talking disease, something with the suffix “-lalia” or “-glossia.” Perhaps a mild form of “delayed echolalia” (she says, after a brief search online); she doesn’t echo other people so much as herself, as if she’s consulting a dictionary of her own previous utterances because the idea of talking spontaneously is too fraught with possible error and exposure, a fear of silence above all. K and MP and I can sit together quietly and wait for inspiration to strike, for something semi-relevant to say. Barb comes in with a laundry list of “stories,” most of which involve what time her cat went out that morning and came back in, or how many marking periods are left in the school year.

I mean, we all like to talk about our daily lives, and I’m not saying my “stories” are endlessly fascinating, but her story-bites are truly nibbles. But she keeps on dispensing, like a coffee vending machine gone haywire, so if you open your mouth to make a response (or counteract with a “story” of your own), she’s on to the next tidbit. If in the middle of one of these “stories,” nephew Joshua, for instance, walks in the door after a week on the road, she keeps talking, even though the rest of us are looking toward the doorway like any normal person would, to say “hey” to Joshua and ask how his week was and if he got caught in that blizzard in South Dakota.

If she is successfully interrupted, she’ll wait until the next opening and then pick up where she left off, like a recording that you pause and then start up again as if nothing happened in the meantime. She once told us that she sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night talking out loud, and our other sister K (in a rare lapse into impolite truth) said, “Noooooo.” MP and I laughed, and Barb looked stunned, like “Wha—?” She really doesn’t know she talks all the time.

You may be wondering how I’m daring to write this stuff when my peops read the ‘zine, and of course the answer is that I finally gave in and decided to write an “underground” edition that they won’t see. I feel guilty about it—their previous responses to the ‘zine have been almost uniformly positive. K said once that she doesn’t understand everything in it but she just keeps reading because she “doesn’t want to miss anything.” And Barb and MP always LOL at something or other. But oh well. I’ve become blocked in my ‘zine writing knowing they’re going to read it, and I need the freedom to go where my slippery brain and flying fingers take me.

So anyway, I told BK that the sentence that’s always on the tip of my tongue that I’ll probably end up blurting out at Barb someday is, “Do you ever get tired of saying the same thing over and over again??” BK’s immediate response was, “Do you know what that brings to mind?” and I got it. “Oh, you mean, ‘Do I ever get tired of thinking the same thing over and over again’?” Bingo.

What BK helped me understand is that, on a certain level, I’ve been treating my move back here almost as a lark, as if my California-gotten gains (sorry, I know I keep using that phrase, but it’s so good!) and my hard-won career-independence from the constraints of a small manufacturing town have combined to make me feel like a grown-up magically free of the ties that previously bound me. But beware, there are no free lunches in nature.

I thought that, because my parents(mother) are dead, I was free of their(her) influence, and so I’ve been delighting in the near-delirious hallucination of living in this minefield that can’t possibly blow up on me anymore—like, “remember when I stepped on that one over there and almost got my foot blowed off? ha ha.” But the DNA did not die with Mom, no it has been scrambled and reshaped, we three sisters carrying out the legacy of our mother’s passive-aggressive social narcissitude, though K takes more after the McKenney side of the family. But Barb and I are like little clone sheep of our screwed-up/up-bringing, and our interactions are thus weird and annoying because we use the same pantomimes against each other, like Lucy and Harpo doing the mirror dance—but I have the greater felicity with language, the advantage of being the oldest—the first, the best—and so I score my points at her expense, hardly reflecting on why I’m doing it. There’s a rivalry between us, a competition I was never aware of before, a need on both our parts to best the other. Before I moved back, she was the “educated” one (but Northern Michigan University, really? [what a snob I am]), and no one else necessarily knew when she was talking out of her ass.

Now I’m here, and unless she’s talking about 7th-grade science (planets and earthworms and such), I can usually puncture her misbegotten pontifications with the pin of my superior education (MSU, go Spartans!) and worldly experience. If, say, Charles Manson gets mentioned, like when he’s up for parole again for the umpteenth time, and she says how it must have been terrible to be those “nurses,” of course I get to jump in with—“no, that was Richard Speck!”—and her response is “Whatever…,” and then I get all self-righteous, like “you’re a teacher, you’re supposed to care about the truth!” (I don’t say that out loud, it’s all implied in my attitude, which is aggressive without owning up to it, i.e., passive-).

There’s also weirder stuff going on that I don’t fully understand (and am not sure I want to). She and I have become a sort of de facto couple—with K & MP we’re a foursome, and if they can’t get together for our Friday night routine, the two of us usually go out (or stay in to watch a movie) together. Once when the four of us were going into Target, and K & MP were walking ahead of us, holding hands, Barb said, “You wanna hold hands?” and I was like NO! Sure, it was a joke. But for some reason I have this feeling that she expects me to be her partner-substitute—the default “other”—since her husband (the cross-dresser who wanted to be my “lesbian lover”) died. This feeling probably comes from semi-suppressed fears of being controlled sexually (as I was at one point) or emotionally (as I always was) and she has become the placeholder against whom I have to defend myself from being taken over. The fact that this is a classic case of projection doesn’t seem to change my thoughts or behavior, and if I were still in therapy I’d have to be doing some embarrassing somatic exercise right about now, which, fortunately, I’m not.

(That’s a weird story in itself, my attempt to be “friends” with J after I left therapy. Should I leave it for another day? It doesn’t really fit here… does it?)

I do love my sister, but the love is only safe to come out when I have some control—like when I convinced her to let me go out at midnight to bring her medicine when she had a really bad cold. Or when I drove her and her son Brian down to the Green Bay airport in bad weather because I know how afraid she is of driving under those conditions. But when I perceive her as trying to somehow be in charge of me, I get all paranoid and resistant. Back when I arrived at her house after driving 5 days back from California with Pookie in advance of the moving van, she had worked out how it would be: I was to plop down in the recliner while she went out to get me whatever takeout food I wanted, and then we would watch the finale of “Friends” (? I think it was) that she had taped for me. I meekly piped up that I’d like to look at the mail that was waiting for me, and she sighed heavily at having her perfectly good plan derailed on a whim.

Barb has the somatic bearing of one who tries to swallow everyone around her. (Plus, she’s a big gal.) Her friends are people she can “take care of” by telling them what to do and scolding them like a mother or a 7th grade teacher when they don’t follow her instructions.

I told Peggy that I don’t like women who are bigger than me, and she immediately responded, “That would explain the weight gain.” She meant it as a joke, but there may be some truth in it. I feel as if, with Barb, I’m fighting for my life/autonomy in a way I couldn’t fight with my mother because she was implacable. Barb, by virtue of being the “baby sister,” will [knock wood] never quite achieve that status with me, and I have no intention of giving up the awesome [hypothetical, perhaps self-delusional] power that that affords me.

I did have a moment of panic when I was thinking about this and got the image of Kathy Bates in “Misery,” when she traps the writer (James Caan, I think) into staying under her care and ends up doing dastardly things to him. I also think of old Alfred Hitchcock TV episodes that galvanized me when I saw them in high school: like when a woman who’s been kidnapped tries to alert someone to her predicament, and her kidnapper convinces the person that she’s a mental patient; or when a man is forcing his elderly mother to walk up and down stairs to make her have a heart attack, and the truth only comes out when her desperate scratch marks are found along the wall. Are these the typical fears of any adolescent when she feels trapped at home with an overbearing mother and no control over her life except in her private thoughts? It’s instructive that, though I learned to masturbate in elementary school, I only did it on the bars of the swing set at school, never at home, and I “forgot all about it” until I was a sophomore in college; and when I dared to start my first-ever diary as a 19-year-old 500 miles from home, the first (and only) entry being about the delicious feeling of getting a back massage from my upstairs neighbor, a boy, my mother with her super-unnatural radar knowing that something was going on “dropped in” on me and discovered said diary and took the whole family back upstate the following day after leaving me a 12-page letter, literally tear-stained, about my perversity and wouldn’t speak to me for 6 weeks.

So I think there’s another level to my miraculous return to my hometown, that in some ways I’ve been living on the surface, keeping my head just above water, thinking it’s all about living in my big house filled with books, 2 cats, the Internet, and long blissful periods of silence, while alternately enjoying and enduring Friday nights in the recliner-of-honor (bro-in-law and me presiding over the TV, snarking to each other) while my two sisters exchange their job and cat news, talking right through the shows and mysteriously going silent when MP mutes the commercials. My nervousness about what all this may mean verges on exhilaration, if that makes any sense, because I love exploring (spelunking?) like this above all else.

I’m in the process of letting all this new/old information sink in, so I can’t really wrap it all up and tell you I’ve settled down into my own personal fungosity, stretching and spreading for miles beneath the surface, defying the brain’s conscious hegemony—but I have that same feeling as when painting, when I don’t know what I’m doing but something is doing it anyway, and it’s a feeling of being open to, and taking part in, the Mystery, the Unknown, that is bigger than Alfred Hitchcock or speculation about one’s psychological demons, because the greatest fear is merely a sheep in wolf’s clothing, a tawdry trick that is revealed only when the true power and glory of existence becomes known.

So let me conclude with a gentler riff on my family, the peops I was born and/or destined to hang with in my twilight years, to use as a mirror or a one-way glass or, in the best of times, to enjoy the simple pleasures with in a complicated world.

[bloody hell, I have no control over the @#!%** spacing on this thing!!!]

fri fam fun lol

Handy key to names, relationships, and occupations:

Barb, sister, teacher

K, sister, coupling specialist (no, not that kind)

MP, K’s husband, macho wrecker truck driver

Joshua, K & MP’s son, macho long-distance truck driver

So one Friday night I’m at K & MP’s for the usual weekly get-together, and MP, always the joker, talks about “waking up every Friday morning with a feeling of dread,” which I, and I alone, interpret correctly as “dread of Friday night.” Ha ha. The TV is on, of course, and we’re watching some cop show I never heard of called “Flashpoint,” a drama of very little interest, or so it would seem, because Joshua is telling MP how many miles he drove last week (over 2,000) and how few hours he slept (less than 18), and K and Barb are talking about the cats throwing up (K’s) or fighting (B’s) (we have 7 cats among us, and they are all grist for the ol’ conversational mill). I am trying to follow the show and/or get a little nap in (the lights are off and I’m parked in K’s recliner). So between the two cross-conversations and the police scanner and the TV and the bonging grandfather clock, I suddenly announce, “It’s just like the ‘zine!” and everyone chuckles momentarily, indulgently (the thought balloons over their heads all say, “Humor her”), before the volume goes up again on the trucker and cat conversations, talk about splitting along gender lines.

Then MP’s cell phone for the wrecker rings and the TV gets muted immediately so he can sound all professional, “Motor Company,” and the rest of us start whispering/guessing what he’s going to say, either “That’s out of the area” or “We don’t do lockouts.” And we’re laughing, of course, trying to be quiet. So when he asks the caller “Where is it?” we expect to hear “That’s out of the area,” but he keeps asking questions, which means he finally got a tow. Then MP says to the caller, “I don’t have any way to get a fax,” and we’re all primed to laugh at anything, so when Joshua mimes receiving a fax out of his ass, the three of us lose it. There is nothing funnier than watching my sisters dissolve into laughter, especially when they have hands over their mouths, tears streaming down their cheeks, and are unsuccessfully attempting to call for quiet… “Sssssshhhh!” So I’m snorting, which is what happens when you’re over 60 and try to laugh like a lady, and Joshua is still “receiving faxes,” and, very uncharacteristically (while on business), MP starts laughing and has to tell the caller “They’re making me laugh,” and he finally gets the information, which for some reason gets even funnier as he repeats phone numbers and directions. He finally hangs up and is off to Peshtigo to tow somebody out of a ditch. The TV gets turned up again, we all dry our eyes and blow our noses, Joshua takes off to meet a friend at a bar, Barb goes to the bathroom and then announces she’s going to “head to the house,” and K and I, in sudden quiet, watch the last half hour of “Numbers” before I too head to the house with its peace, quiet, and cats who don’t throw up or fight though they do many other interesting things that I could tell the family about next week if I can get a word in.

p.s. Here I have half a page left [in the paper version]. When my mother wrote me her long, long letters and she came to the end and realized that there was a whole empty side or margins that could be filled with more news, she kept on writing so as not to waste a perfectly good few inches of paper.

So I’m going to tell you just one short little cat story, the story of Brutus who stepped on some painter’s tape, sticky from having been used in the painting of my glorious “happy [once attic] room.” In a panic, he fled the room, and of course the tape went with him, and I ran out after him calling “Brutus! Stop!” and as I rounded the stairwell and headed toward the bedroom, I saw him standing as still as a statue, the blue tape clinging to his foot and stuck in his fur, just waiting patiently, like I have never seen a cat do, and then I stepped on the tape and he was free to move again. It was like a mitzvah, even though neither of us is Jewish (that I know of), and I often think of this story as a reflection of the deep bond of which cats are capable, despite the bad rap they get from dog lovers.

This space left intentionally blank.

[Mary McKenney]

mary‘zine random redux: #31 February 2005

July 9, 2009

Well, as Ann Landers used to say, I have the best readers in the whole world! Modesty prevents me from quoting from all the amazing responses I got to the Michigan homecoming ‘zine. One generous soul even sent me a check, which I have not asked for or expected for a long time. She must have missed the part where I am now made of money. (Literally. Hold me up to the light and you’ll see the watermarks.) But seriously, I love the feedback. And financial contributions, while not mandatory, are never turned away. As my old friend P is constantly reminding me, last year’s real estate deal is the last windfall (as opposed to snowfall) I will ever see in this lifetime.

I’m especially pleased by the reports of a few readers that they shared the ‘zine with others. One spouse (with midwestern roots) claimed he had “the best sleep in a long time…” after he and his wife read it in bed together. I often wonder if people have to know me to get half of what I write. So this kind of feedback is really encouraging and makes me want to keep writing. (Yes! Your responses are like applause for Tinker Bell!)

It was a relief to hear from Maria, who didn’t mind that I had published her initial misgivings about the ‘zine’s “midwestern preoccupation.” I want to quote part of her response, since her earlier e-mail played such a big part in the last issue….

… Well, Mary. You did it. I am so proud of you. You moved to the heartland… YOUR heart land. And I loved that you used my email. You can use any words of mine you like. They don’t really belong to me, as they pass right thru me. I don’t even know where they come from really.
But even MORE amazing then getting your wonderful, full of homey facts, cozy, heartwarming, tear jerking issue (with only one ‘cutely amusing’ comment from Barb!!!) yesterday…. this morning on the ‘Today Show’ the weather man; Al Roker, interviewed a group of ladies under umbrellas who were standing in the rain outside the ‘Today Show’ headquarters in New York holding a BIG sign that they had printed, in unprofessional big letters, MENOMINEE, MI.  I was blown away it was so mystical! How often does THAT happen??

Wow. The Yoopers are starting to manifest in all sorts of strange ways. To me, there’s nothing stranger than my becoming one of them again, but I’ll grant you that local folks showing up on Maria’s TV is truly a sign. I’ve told you about “Yooper,” yes? It’s the folksy, self-deprecating version of “U.P.’er.” I’d like to see the term changed to “Uppers,” but then Schloegel’s gift shop wouldn’t be able to pander to the vacationers from down state (the Lowers) by selling homegrown hick paraphernalia (“Say yah to da U.P., eh?”) in an attempt to make an economically depressed area into a tourist destination. We’re not lucky enough to have alligators, Cuban exiles, and Mickey Mouse, so let’s play up the dumb lumberjack approach: “Yah, yah, we so stoopid up here.” (Actually, that sounds more like Arnold Schwarzenegger; now I’m confused.)

So to answer your first question, yes, I still like it here. The peeps (and everyone else I meet) keep asking me, “You still like the snow?” Yes! “How about the cold?” Yes! The ice, I’m not so crazy about, but we’ll get to that a little later. But first, here’s this….

I left my heart… and had to go back for it…

When I was finally starting to feel settled in my new home, I had to fly back to San Francisco for a 7-day painting intensive. The peeps were a bit perplexed… “She’s going back to California already?” Barb’s friend Shirley wondered if I would go for a visit and realize my mistake and want to move back. Even if I had, it would have been tant pis. (That either means “too bad” or “Aunt Piss.”)

The trip wasn’t all it could have been. I kept getting surprised, and not always in a good way. But I guess whether surprise is welcome or not is entirely a function of one’s expectations. I didn’t expect to get sick, for the first time in years, on the very first day of painting. I didn’t expect Terry and Jean to cancel because of various foot-and-eye disorders. I didn’t expect to have my crucifix pocket knife pulled off my bag at the airport in Green Bay. I guess that’s not as outrageous as having your nail clippers confiscated, but it was still a hassle. The security people huddled around this Weapon of Minimal Destruction and exchanged significant glances, as if they couldn’t bring themselves to speak. “Aha!” their glances conveyed. “Another terroristic plot foiled! Foiled, I tell you!” Also, I’d like to say to that ONE GUY who put explosives in his shoes before he tried to board a plane…. THANKS A LOT. I complained that I had no shoes, and then I met a man who had no dynamite. I mean, this was Green Bay, not Tel Aviv… although, I suppose northeastern Wisconsin could be the perfect gateway for a rogue Canadian to sneak through on his way to bomb the Blatz beer plant.

But the good surprises outweighed the bad, and of course some things, such as the Eternal Present itself—embodied, enacted, and embraced by Barbara, Pi-Te, Polly, Jan, Kate, Diane L, Diane D, Kerry, Amy, and more—were not so much a surprise as a delightful reminder that Eternity is not “out there” at Time’s End—as if we’re going to sail over the horizon of life and fall off the edge (someday, people are going to talk about us the way we talk about the Flat Earthers. “They actually thought time was linear?????”)—but dwells in Stillness and Communion, Here, There, and Everywhere. I seem to be channeling Emily Dickinson with all the capital letters here. There is, of course, a special connection with friends with whom I have been doing this Painting Dance for up to 25 years, but the beauty of the Eternal Present is that there is no “old” and “new,” no “then” and “now,” no “being at the intensive” and “lying in a hotel room blowing your nose.” Pi-Te expressed this same idea one day when he said that he felt no time had passed since last year’s December intensive, when we sat in this same circle, with one more or one less participant but all part of the same stream.

It was torture to try to paint when I wasn’t feeling well—and to live in a hotel, for that matter, in a room with no refrigerator or microwave. I wanted to go home so bad. But I was able to return to the studio for the last two days of the intensive, and everything came together for me. I started painting my new house and yard and everything, and I came to the point where I knew I had to let go and let anything happen. You can’t paint truthfully if you’re holding back or trying to steer the imagery in any way. So I started painting pig demons at my windows, a Loch Ness-type monster rising out of Lake Michigan, snakes coming up my front porch. I don’t know if it’s possible to convey how deeply satisfying this sort of thing is to those who’ve never done it. Some part of me had been afraid that if I let the truth—what is, whatever it is—come out, I would discover that my idyllic coming-of-home story—my fairytale, as my Lower friend put it—would be exposed as mere fantasy. And yet the truth is always good news, contrary to popular belief; the trick is that you have to go toward it not knowing, with no reservations. Allowing yourself to follow wherever the brush wants to go takes courage—more than you can imagine, considering it’s “just a piece of paper.” Painting for process is a microcosm where you learn just how boogie-man-basic our grownup fears really are.

While I was in S.F. I got to see some friends who were not part of the intensive: had lunch with E/Van near Union Square… dinner with Jean at Ping’s in Marin (I have longed and lusted for Chinese food since moving away)… and lunch on Clement St. with J the day before I left. Remember J? I haven’t written about ending therapy, almost exactly a year ago. The process came to a natural end, and we both felt it. J was open to becoming friends after some time had passed, so I called her 6 months later and we met in Berkeley a couple times. Now we talk on the phone once a month or so. We shared such intimacy during our therapy hours, but of course the focus was always on me. Now we are building a new relationship out of that deep connection, and, to me, that is the best possible evidence of the good work we did together.

San Francisco is truly a fantasy city, exciting and stimulating. It was refreshing to see so many different kinds of people again: the young hip-somethings in Ella’s Restaurant, one of them a skinny black guy wearing outrageous jewelry. A rabbi telling his breakfast companion about being interviewed by The New York Times. The European woman who got on the hotel elevator with me and, when I asked her which floor, said something that sounded like “Ted.” “What?” “TED!” she exclaimed, pointing to the button for the third floor. (Sorry, I’m not up on my foreign numerals.) The woman in another elevator, this one in the Sutter-Stockton garage, wearing a big cowboy hat and spike heels, with a French poodle in her purse. The young guy with face piercings at Sony Metreon who helped me (shouting above the megadecibel sound system) pick out the right PlayStation components for my nephew. Stopping in at the Whole Foods on California St. after dropping off my rental car… having forgotten the color, the bustling energy, the endless food choices… and then walking slowly back to the hotel past dignified apartment buildings and a small jazz band playing on Fillmore St…. remembering the excitement of moving to this exotic place in 1973 and learning the neighborhoods, where we would live, where we would find work.

In fact, most of the memories this trip awoke in me were from the early days, when P and I lived on 17th St. below Uranus (butt of many jokes) and went dancing in the many gay bars that flourished back then: Scott’s, Maud’s, Amelia’s, Peg’s, and many more whose names I’ve forgotten. Eating at the plentiful restaurants in North Beach, Chinatown, the Mission…. playing cards with Jean and Bruce for money and saving it up to blow on a dinner at Ernie’s ($100 for four of us!). Strolling down the hill to see old Katharine Hepburn movies at the Castro Theater. Standing in line for hot fudge sundaes at Bud’s. Reading the Chronicle for the daily dispatches of “Tales of the City” (before it was a book) and increasingly bizarre political developments: the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the Jonestown massacre, the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone… marching in a candlelight vigil to City Hall on that cold November night and listening to Joan Baez sing all our hearts out… marching again after Dan White was all but freed on the Twinkie defense, but leaving when the crowd began setting police cars on fire.

Yes, said the old codger (if women can be codgers), it was a great place and time to be young…. but when the intensive was over, I was more than ready to leave.

Dec. 14, 2 a.m.

The flight home was arduous. United had changed the aircraft from a 747 to a… I don’t know, a 666?… so my “E” aisle seat became a middle-of-the-row seat. I spent the whole 4 hours with my shoulders and knees pulled in, trying to avoid physical contact with my seatmates who sprawled unconcernedly on either side. Then in Chicago I waited 6 hours instead of the scheduled 45 minutes for a flight to Green Bay after mine was canceled. Landed in Green Bay at midnight. I had thought I wouldn’t be able to drive the 55 miles home after taking Dramamine downers all day, but I was wide awake and rarin’ to go. I reclaimed my Jeep, headed for the exit, and drove right into a chain that was roping off part of the lot. Oops! Got to the parking toll booth and oops! again, I had no idea where my ticket was. But I finally got out of there, stopped for coffee at the first gas station I saw, and called P on my cell phone to let her know I was almost home. I was ecstatic when I finally drove across the Menekaunee bridge into Michigan exactly 2 weeks to the day that I had driven myself and my hidden-in-plain-sight Weapon of Barely Any Destruction to do battle with the security forces in Packerland. As I drove quietly down First Street, which was lined with Christmas lights and old-fashioned streetlights, past the bandstand and the marina, the bay glowing darkly to my right and snow on the ground, it felt just like “It’s a Wonderful Life” but without James Stewart’s suicidal depression or his chubby angel (and without Donna Reed, unfortunately: oh my God, that scene where she’s on the phone and he has his face in her hair, inhaling her scent…).

I had been dreaming of the moment when I would finally get home, dump my bags inside the door, and tiptoe upstairs to surprise Pookie. At first he looks startled, and then recognition dawns and he emits a single “MEW?!” I spend the next 2 and a half hours holding him, combing and petting him, and burying my face in his furry neck. (If you can’t be with Donna Reed, bury your face in the one you’re with.) He endures my affections because he’s so grateful to have his longtime companion back again—and probably because he’s damn sick of listening to the radio, which I had left on an NPR station for the whole 2 weeks so he could imagine I was just in another room listening to the BBC News Hour. Barb and K had faithfully come by to do the necessary upkeep and keep him company for a while, but there’s just no substitute for… well, for me.

Dec. 14, after a few hours of sleep

It’s wonderful to be home again, to be covered in Pookie’s flying fur, to check my e-mail, to look out at the thin layer of snow in my back yard in wonder and disbelief. (Disbelief because it does look kind of fake, as if they had trucked in some artificial stuff for my benefit.) I treat myself to breakfast at Pat & Rayleen’s, where I savor a broccoli-and-cheese omelet and hot coffee. The sun is dazzling on the snow outside, the restaurant is warm and almost empty, and I watch in fond acknowledgment of the special intimacies of small-town living as the waitress tries to extract from an old man in a nearby booth what kind of pie he wants. It’s a scene of great intensity, and especially volume, as the entire list of available pies is SHOUTED distinctly and repeatedly at the old man while his daughter looks on in amusement….

Waitress: “BANANA CREAM…? APPLE…?” (she hesitates encouragingly after every flavor)… “STRAWBERRY RHUBARB…?”





Old man: “WHAT?”



Waitress: “BANANA….?”

And so on. You’d think this would have been a highly irritating experience for everyone concerned, but the daughter’s wry smile never falters, and the waitress shows perfect patience, like she’s willing to stand there and shout at him all day until he chooses his pie. She’s one of my favorite waitresses anyway…. Mary Kay…. and she’s come to welcome me as a regular, since I always sit in her section and am making a pretty good reputation for myself as a generous tipper. (I imagine waitresses gathering in back rooms all over town, whispering, “I hear she’s from California. Obviously she has no idea what passes for a tip around here.”)

mary’s first christmas with snow… and peeps… in a quarter of a century

Dec. 17

Barb, K, MP, and I have dinner at Schussler’s, ostensibly for K and MP’s 32nd wedding anniversary, but they insist on paying. The food and drink are excellent as usual, and it’s fun to be out in the happy holiday atmosphere. Christmas is definitely better in snow country. (Do you suppose Lebanese or Syrian Christians ever mutter, on December 25, “It just doesn’t feel like Christmas without snow”?) On the way home we drive around to see the elaborate Christmas lights and decorations. We go across the bridge to our old neighborhood, which is still basically rural. Mr. Krygoski (he of the “Jesus Is Lord Over Menominee County” sign) has bought up most of the land around there and puts on an outdoor extravaganza every year. We pull into a small parking area and are met by a man dressed like a shepherd who hands us a religious tract and wishes us a Merry Christmas.

It’s an awesome sight—or spectacle, rather. There’s a manger scene. Angels in a pagoda. A live donkey walking round and round in a pen. Lights in all the trees and bushes, all around the house, and even “on high”: the property is bordered on two sides by tall trees, and in the dark you can’t see the trees, just the lights, so it looks like Mr. K’s message is written across the sky: GOD IS THE GREATEST. On the roof of the house, outlined in bright lights, is the single word JESUS. (I think I would have at least made a sentence out of it: JESUS WEPT?) It’s bizarre, as if my old, modest neighborhood of woods, pastures, and sand hills has been transformed into a religious carnival. All that’s missing is cotton candy and a Pharaoh’s wheel. (Sorry about that.)

Other light displays around town are more tasteful and truly awe-inspiring. The best of them make you feel like the people in the house are bursting with the joy of the season and just have to share. I haven’t done any Christmas decorating myself in years, and I really didn’t this year, except to hang some light strings in my loft windows—and they’re definitely an eclectic lot: red chili peppers, white skulls, and two strings of beautiful “paper lantern” lights that Kate made. I also lit up the green neon question mark Barb gave me for my birthday, and changed the bulbs in the ceiling fixtures to green and blue. When everyone else in the neighborhood retired their seasonal light displays, I kept mine up, because now when I’m puttering around in the middle of the night I feel like I’m at the bottom of a peaceful sea, softly dappled with color.

Dec. 21

I wake up and am pleasantly surprised to see that it’s snowing, for the first time since I’ve been back. (I’ve seen the result but not the process.) Little puffy flakes drift lazily down, and the thin drifts on the roads look like granulated sugar being blown this way and that. I get busy with breakfast, coffee, and e-mail, and the next time I look out the window, everything’s white! HOLY MOLEY, I’d better get going! I have to go shopping for groceries and mail a package—a neon question mark like mine for Barbara to use as a visual aid in the painting studio.

Tightly zipped, tucked, and laced into my squall parka, scarf, gloves, and boots, I waddle out to the garage. (A year ago, when no one had any idea that I might move to a land of snow and ice, Barbara knitted me two beautiful wool scarves, which have now become part of my basic wardrobe.) I have never driven in snow before, so I’m a little anxious. I’m thankful for the 4-wheel drive (4WD) as I cautiously back the Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo (Cheyenne Apache Running Bear Marlboro Man) out of the garage and start driving down the unplowed road. My top speed is 20 mph, and I note gratefully that everyone out there is driving as carefully as I am. I stop at the Pack’n’Ship, where I struggle through mid-calf-high snow in the parking lot to get inside. I’ve been moving freely through air and on land for many years now, so it does smush my brain a little to be faced with the basic challenge of getting from point A to point B through dense snowgrowth. I’m enjoying it, even though everyone seems to want to bum my high:

Me to shipping person: “I just moved here from California, and I’m loving it!”

Shipping person: “Yeah, the first snow is nice, but you’ll hate it after a while.”

Me [silently]: Gee thanks, are you from the Michigan tourist board?

I’m serious about the brain-smush thing. Depositing a check in the bank, I put the wrong numbers in the wrong places. I can’t keep track of all my winter accoutrements—there are way too many pockets on my person. The Kleenex in one of my flap pockets is wet from being snowed on. (Always keep the flap on the outside!) I can’t find my money. I also can’t find a mailbox for the sweaty sheaf of bills in my hand (the grocery store is like a sauna). When I get back out to the Jeep with my groceries, I’m slipping and sliding in the snow, and while I have too many pockets, I don’t seem to have enough hands. My scarf is trying to blow off, and the hood on the squall parka doesn’t move when I turn my head. (Did mama pin my mittens to my sleeve? I sure hope so!) Finally, I’m ready to leave, but now I can’t find my keys. Did I drop them? I traipse all around the Jeep, head down, feeling like an idiot. Finally, I find my keys in the passenger seat, where I had dumped them with my bag. Whew.

Dec. 22

It’s been snowing all night. At 2:00 in the morning I remember that my new furnace is going to be arriving at “eight, eight-thirty,” so I set the alarm for 7:30 and get out there and start shoveling the driveway. I’m self-conscious, because I haven’t done this for a long time (ever?), and some of my neighbors know K or Barb so know who I am. (“She never goes anywhere!” proclaimed one of K’s coworkers who lives a block away.) I make pretty good progress, actually, flinging snow to the side and making a path out to the road. But it’s going to be a big job to clear the whole driveway, and even if the furnace guys park in the road, they’ll have to bring the furnace in through one of the big garage doors. So I get the brilliant idea to drive the Jeep out and kind of mash the snow down with it, thus using horse power instead of my own.

Thankfully, the garage door on the Jeep side opens easily, despite the snow that has drifted in under it. I power backwards and….. oops…. the mighty Jeep strikes out! I’m stuck in my own driveway, with front and back tires spinning uselessly! I thought 4WD was like magic—you mean it can get you over hill and dale and ditch and gully but can’t handle a foot of snow? This is really embarrassing. I get to work shoveling snow from around the tires, but it doesn’t help. I bring out some old carpet remnants from the garage and put them under the rear tires. No help.

Then the man across the street comes out of his garage, snowblowin’ in the wind. He’s obviously out there to clear his own driveway, but there I am, damsel in distress, and he can hardly ignore me. He blows his way across the road, and I explain that the 4WD isn’t working. He asks if I’m sure I have it in 4WD. I’d be offended, but I so clearly don’t know what I’m doing that I’m grateful when he asks to get in the Jeep and check. He plays with all the gears, including 4WD-Part Time, 4WD-Full Time, 4WD-Lo, etc. He rocks the Jeep back and forth and finally it whooshes backwards out of the driveway through the big snowplow-generated drift to the road. He gets out and tells me that 4WD-Full Time isn’t working, but Part Time is OK. (I guess you can get some of your Jeep in 4WD some of the time, but you can’t get all of your Jeep in 4WD all of the time. I later read the owner’s manual and discovered there was nothing wrong, it was supposed to be in Part Time mode.)

We’d never met before, so we shake hands and exchange names. And guess what his name is. Go ahead, guess. Jim Anderson. Ring any bells? First, I think, what a perfect Midwestern name. Then I think, perfect name for an insurance agent. Then I think… “Father Knows Best”! Robert Young was Jim Anderson, insurance agent and all-around good guy. Mother (who “Knew Best” before Daddy had a clue but also knew her place) was Margaret. I reckon that makes me Princess or Kitten. Princess was older and kind of snotty, but I feel more like Kitten at that moment… young, naive, and beholden to a nice man with a big blower.

I use my by-now-pretty-tired line, “I just moved here from California,” and he says, “So I heard.” (See? I told you they’re all talking about me.)

He goes back to his own driveway, and I go around to the front of my house and shovel the porch, steps, and a path out to the road for the mailman. I see Jim blowing other neighbors’ driveways, so I go inside for hot cocoa and fresh-baked cookies (not really—Mother Anderson is nowhere to be seen). A while later, I hear Jim out there blowing my driveway, and I wonder about the etiquette of playing Kitten-in-distress to Robert Young. Do I have to bring him a hotdish, or a Jello mold? Invite him and his wife over to play pinochle? Or can I just wave my thanks out the window?

As so often happens, the social conundrum solves itself, and the furnace guys show up just as Jim has finished clearing the driveway. I go out there to greet them and wave/shout thanks at Jim, as he puts one finger on the side of his nose and vanishes up the chimney. The furnace guys look like they’re 16 years old. They need the second garage door open, so I push the button to operate it and then decide to shovel out the shelf of snow that has built up against the door. I have my boots on but no gloves or jacket. I discover to my dismay that there’s ICE under that thare snow, and I slip and fall to my hands and knees. From that humiliating position I look up to see one of the furnace boys looking down at me. It’s a perfect sit-com moment, but there’s no laugh track and no witty repartee. Just a long pause.

“Slippery,” he finally says.

(P suggests that his terseness might be Hemingway’s influence. A rare U.P. literary joke.)

Furnace boys spend the whole day in the basement, banging around for an hour or so at a time and then driving away in their van for unexplained reasons. It’s starting to get a mite chilly around 5:00 p.m., when they tell me they’ll have to come back the next day to finish.

Dec. 23

I’m sitting here in my loft on a beautiful sunny day. Radio says it’s 7 degrees, high of 13 today, wind-chill factor minus 15-20. But I am not impressed by these numbers. I’m actually too warm in my long-sleeve t-shirt and corduroy overshirt. The heat’s not on, because the furnace boys are still down in the basement, making a racket and hopefully getting my furnace installed and putting all their ducts in a row. P and I had our weekly phone chat yesterday, and it was odd that she was trying to convince me how cold it is here (she’d seen the Packers on Monday Night Football), and I was claiming that if you’ve got the right winter clothes, you actually feel warmer here than you do in the Sunset district of San Francisco on a foggy summer’s day. Supposedly, the coldest winter Mark Twain ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. The coldest winter I ever spent was a winter in Northfield, Minnesota. Man, was that cold. But I digress.

Dec. 24

It’s 0 today. No degrees whatsoever. I’m sure there’s a wind-chill factor of massive minus proportions, but I’m starting to think that “wind chill” was invented so Midwesterners could brag about, not how cold they are, but how cold they feel. But I’m toasty in my loft. K and Barb and I do some last-minute Christmas shopping in the afternoon. As we leave Shopko and head for the mall, I ask, “Which mall?” and Barb assures me, in her best deadpan voice, “There’s only one mall, Mare.”


Christmas Eve and Day (one at Barb’s and one at K and MP’s) are a satisfying whirlwind of kids and wrapping paper and ham sandwiches and dueling harmonicas. Everyone makes out like a bandit. K gets a down coat, MP gets lace-up boots, and Barb gets DVDs of “Six Feet Under.” I get a big red frying pan and lots of other goodies. The kids get everything they ever wanted and are soon bored.

Jan. 1, par-tay!

I forgot to tell you about hosting (or at least housing) Thanksgiving. My house is the only one with enough space to fit both Barb’s and K’s branches of the family tree. (I’m out on a limb by myself, as usual.) K comes by a few days earlier to help me make Swedish meatballs. We divide up the rest of the cooking, and on T’Day we stuff ourselves with the usual—turkey, potatoes and gravy, meatballs, green beans, deviled eggs, fresh cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie. I discover to my surprise that I love having people over! Everyone seems comfortable here—I’m glad that even the younger ones who never knew me before seem to accept me as part of the scene—and there’s a natural flow between rooms as people group and regroup according to whether they want to watch football or talk quietly or play noisily or eat some more. I love that I’m actually giving something back to my family after all my years away. I feel like I’ve gone out into the world and made my fortune, and now I’ve brought it back to share, in all sorts of ways. Assuming I don’t live into my aught-aughts or piss it all away, I will be leaving a material legacy that will change the lives of my sisters’ children and grandchildren. Finally I feel part of the human chain that came from Denmark and Ireland and struggled so that each generation that followed would have greater opportunities. That is the American Dream, and not even George Bush and his cronies can destroy that.

So anyway, I decided to have another family gathering on New Year’s Day, with finger foods so people could drop by whenever they wanted. I fretted over the event as if I were going to be hosting the Junior League. For one thing, I wanted to provide food that was outside the usual realm of veggie tray, fruit tray, and mass-produced brownies from Sam’s Club, but I also wanted them to like it. For another thing, I wanted to make the presentation colorful and artful—such as a pretty design of contrasting colors and types of Mackinac Island fudge. I was trying to figure out how to serve the little BBQ sausages on toothpicks but still keep them warm, and while I was explaining the dilemma to K she fished a couple of the sausages out of the crockpot with her fingers and proclaimed, “You’re in redneck country now.” Geez, you try to be a little refined. The day was quieter than Thanksgiving because not everyone was there at the same time. Again, the party shifted from room to room in a natural way (I am just so absurdly proud of that! I have brought the gift of space to the peeps!), and the kids played hide-and-seek, always hiding in the room where the adults were, always surprised when they were easily found.

Jan. 6, the weather report continues

I’ve been disappointed by the recent “warm” temperatures—20 and above—and the melting snow. So I’m happy to see little flakes swirling down when I get up. Snow looks so insubstantial when it’s falling, but it covers all the yards and roads in no time. I hear a snowblower nearby and peek out my bathroom window. Yes! Father Blows Best has cleared my driveway again! I just have to shovel off the front porch and a path to the road. It’s easy because the snow is light and fluffy. I strew ice-melting particles on the porch and steps.

Even though I have work to do—I’ve gotten two big papers to edit on the same day… one on the proteins in saliva (more spit research for Barb to tell her students about) and one on how viruses are transmitted from mother to fetus—I decide to take advantage of the beautiful virgin snow to walk over to Henes (pronounced Hennis) Park. It’s only a block away, but so far I have just not found the time to get out there… you know, so many naps to take, so little time….

The snowplows have come through so the road is mostly packed snow, but there’s treacherous ice underneath. I daintily pick my way over to the park and enter through an unplowed entrance and trudge across what in summer is called a “lawn.” I soon realize I should have brought my new digital camera. I am surrounded by white-flocked evergreens and the stark intricate patterns of branches against the sky. The sun has come out, so the contrast of black-and-white winter—the so-called “dead season”—and the blue sky is stunning. When I get to the huge expanse of snow and ice that in summer is called “the bay,” I start thinking about beauty, the capture of: Take a picture (it’ll last longer). But there seems to be no separate picture here, no obvious frame where “this” is more beautiful than “that.” There’s just a sense of wholeness, a sense that I’m part of the picture, not an outside observer. To paraphrase Krishnamurti, the “picture taker” is the “picture taken.”

I haven’t seen anyone else around except for a park employee driving a snowplow up ahead. The park is closed to cars in the winter, and though many people walk here regularly, it’s the middle of a weekday. As I’m crunching past the snow-covered beach on one side and the playground on the other, I realize a couple of things: Though this park feels deeply personal to me, and has almost mystical significance in my life, it isn’t the same place it was when I was a kid. The big slide is gone, the concession stand where I worked one summer with my father has been boarded up, and the swimming area is marked off by buoys that make it difficult for an adult to get wet past her knees. And of course I’m not the same person, for all sorts of reasons. But there’s enough of an intersect that the point where the place and the person meet—like a cross, or an X if you prefer—is also the intersect of heart and memory. It’s a feeling of… and here in my ruminations, BAM! The ice slyly rises up and slides beneath my feet, and I fall hard on my ass and my left elbow. After uttering the obligatory “Oh shit,” I assess my possible injuries. My elbow hurts like a son-of-a-gun, but I seem to be intact. Before attempting to rise from my hard landing, I lie there for a moment and think about what would be even more important than a camera to bring on these walks (should there ever be another one)—my cell phone. Snowplow Man has long gone, there are no other walkers, and it has started snowing again. Worst-case scenario, I could have lain there all night and become a Maresicle before anyone ever found me.

Also, I think about how, if I’d brought my camera, and if there had been another person to take my picture at this moment, it would have been worth more to my friends and family than 100 photos of the snowy trees. There’s Mare, hunched over on hands and knees, slowly rising like a pachyderm from the ashes, her bomber’s hat askew, sunglasses down on her nose, weaving and wavering like a toddler taking her first step, and then BOOM… No, I won’t give you the satisfaction of picturing a second tumble, I make it the first time, thank you very much. I clomp my way carefully out of the park, and there are no more incidents. The 15-minute walk has taken about an hour, and when I get home I swallow a couple of Aleve and count my lucky stars.

Jan. 14

Obviously, I could go on like this all day, but I’ll restrict myself to just one more snowstory. MP and K both have the day off, so we drive back up to Escanaba to the furniture store with the unpronounceable name—Heynssens-Selin’s—where I buy a beautiful Mission-style rocking chair and a leather hassock. MP is driving, K’s in the back seat, and I’m riding shotgun. It’s hot in the truck so I’ve taken my squall parka off. That will prove to be mistake #1. When we get back to my place and I start to get out of the truck, I make two more mistakes: (2) I forget how high up the truck is, and (3) I forget that there’s ice on my driveway. Actually (4), I forget completely that just because the sun is shining doesn’t make it California. As soon as my right foot touches terra-not-so-firma, it goes slip-sliding away and I fall the rest of the way out of the truck, landing hard on my ass and bare elbow (at least it’s the other side of the ass and the other elbow from my fall in the park). K sees what happens and shouts to MP, “SHE’S DOWN!” He looks across the front seat and can’t see me because I’m on my ass. He comes around and helps me up and I shuffle carefully into the house. Good guy that he is, he finds the ice-melting particles in the garage and sprinkles the driveway. The next day, I check out my bruises in the big bathroom mirror and I’m amazed. There are two huge black and purple hematomas, one on each cheek (“I regret that I have but two ass cheeks to lose for my country”), and the surface is smooth and strangely beautiful, like fine Italian marble. I really should have taken a picture. I have never paid so much attention to my ass (or had to) in my life.

Jan. 25

Reading this over, I’m a little embarrassed that I’ve spent way more time talking about winter than about my peeps. Well, last time I was all consumerist, and this time I’m the weather channel. And I still haven’t told you about my frozen sump pump hose, frozen furnace vent, or frozen dryer vent. I’ll just say Thank God for a brother (in-law and in-spirit) who’s willing to get sprayed by dirty water from a sump hole, a sister who happily paints my walls, and another sister who makes me yummy cookies and deviled eggs. (I tried to convince K and Barb to have a “deviled egg-off”” so I could “decide whose were better,” but they declined. Being the oldest sister isn’t as easy as it used to be; gone are the days when I could trick them into competing for my approval, or at least bribe them with a dime.)

I love that everything here is part now, part then, all touching into deep places within. I have the essential element of solitude and the ritual family gatherings to eat fish fry, watch a movie, or celebrate a birthday. I have both happy and sad memories to share, and new happy and sad moments to learn and grow from. I love that my peeps are still crazy about me after all these years, their quirky “sister from California” with the lefty politics, $50 words, and oddly decorated house who is different in so many ways but who can laugh and sing with them and share a life that is no longer just theirs but ours.

The Lord bless thee, and keep thee;
The Lord make his face shine upon thee,
and be gracious unto thee;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee,
and give thee peace.

[Mary McKenney]

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