Last words

So I went with Mike to Minnesota to visit in-laws for 9 days, and it was a fucking nightmare. Kind of a mixed blessing; on the one hand, there was constant fighting - my sister-in-law vs. my indescribably-awful-yet-still-pity-inspiring-stepmother-in-law, my father-in-law vs. IAYSPISIL, SIL vs. her husband, my brother-in-law......did I mention that SIL and BIL also have twin 10-month-old-boys? Guess who got to chase them around and keep them from crying and crawling out the open screen door and rolling under the Sharp-Edged Coffee Table of Death (which IAYSPISIL refused to move)? Yep, that'd be me.

On the other hand: my father-in-law and stepmother-in-law (ok, I'll drop the acronym) have broken up.

YES, folks, for damn close to a decade I have borne this woman's braying and ignorance and forced fakeness and snide passive-aggression, her horrible knickknack obsession, her crippled grammar and her bewildering, insulting, often stolen Xmas presents (ok, "stolen" might be too harsh - but think restaurant placemats and hotel shampoo).....and after all these years, it ended up NOT being me who eventually had it out with her. That honor went to my SIL, who loves and everything and everybody and demands that everyone love her in return. When they don't, look out.

It got ugly. It stayed ugly for about 3 days, with all kinds of sniping and griping and confronting and accusing and denying and lying and un-inviting and threats to stay in hotels, etc. Mike and I stayed out of it. Way, waaaaay out of it.

Also, I'm blogging on a real blog now, and probably ditching LJ. Also, I miss Josh. Also, I'm staying where I am for now, but then I might move. Also, I went to the HNS conference and it was awesome. Also, I finally feel for the first time in my life like I have enough money. Also, that's about it.

Over and out.

So it goes

I'm pretty sick of the internet. Actually what I'm sick of is what the internet does to people, and more specifically what it does to me. I don't think I can take one more self-centered list, or snob-appeal list, one more who's-smarter-than-whom pissing contest, one more cheery-fake declaration of friendship by someone who'll immediately talk shit behind my/others' backs, or one more nasty bit of bullshit about me or you or anybody else. I don't think I want to keep in touch with nearly as many people as I thought I did.

What goes around

Ok, not a fair title. I'm not about the schadenfreude, I promise. But at the risk of making a sweeping generalization, I hate the people who work for Caterpillar. I hate their arrogance, their surety that their stock would go infinitely up and up and up, they dismissive contempt of anyone not smart enough to work at Caterpillar. And now the ax has fallen, and I have mixed emotions.

Many years ago, I was hired at a small college that was in the midst of changing its health coverage (like so many others). My very first meeting at this college was about the choice between an HMO and a PPO, and why they'd chosen the latter. A few people, including one very vocal person, objected on the grounds that the PPO was "too expensive" and was "exactly the same as the HMO," and their husband/wife already had excellent coverage through Caterpillar, so why did they have to "waste" money on another policy? I remember clenching my fists until my nail dug a bloody indent in my hand; it took all my self-control not to stand up and start shouting (FIRST meeting on the job, remember):

1) Ain't no such thing as too much health insurance. Unlike fire or flood or home or even auto, which you MIGHT not need, you are going to need to go to the doctor sooner or later. Yes you are. Yes, even you. So shut the fuck up.

2) You can opt out of your own employer's health insurance if you want, without forcing the rest of us to. So shut the fuck up.

3) Not all of us are married to someone who shares fabulous health coverage through Caterpillar. So shut the fuck up.

4) HMOs and PPOs are not even close to the same thing. A PPO covers a wide range of routine health checkups and special procedures, tests and surgeries, and an HMO does not care whether you live or die. I don't care if it's the same list of doctors for both: you will not get the same quality of care. I've known that since I was 15. So shut the fuck up.

5) Caterpillar may have the best health coverage in town, and the best retirement packages, and the best union, and the best salaries, and the best growth, but one day this will change. So shut the fuck up.

I said #5 to many people over the years (minus the last part). I'm not a market expert with the brilliant foresight to predict the worldwide dump the markets have taken, but I saw my dad work for Sears for 24 years and get shafted at the end by "restructuring." Once upon a time, a job with Sears was a job for life. They had the best health care and retirement and job availability and they were all about families and taking care of their own. Until one day they suddenly weren't. Never trust your workplace. Never. I don't care who it is; they care more about themselves they they do about you. I've learned this a few times over the years, but my dad's lesson was my earliest and strongest. And now it's happening again.

So what have we learned today, class? Never trust health insurance; never trust your employer; never trust 99/9% of other people to look out for anything but their own selfish interests. It's not cynicism, it's reality. And I've always been like this; the volume is just turned up more now.

The person who said that incredibly stupid arrogant insensitive selfish tunnel-visioned narrow-minded thing at the meeting became a pretty good friend of mine. I think of them now, and wonder how they're doing; I hope they're ok. No one deserves to get downsized.

Still, I watch the burning wreckage with a Cassandra-like sense of vindication.

(no subject)

Two of my female colleagues shared detailed obstetrical/gynecological details with me today out of the blue. I don't know why I seem to inspire these kinds of drive-by personal revelations.

I totally bought this today

Next week is "Life Week" at the Very Catholic University where I'm currently at. (Even though the Roe v. Wade anniversary was this past week. This week is Martin Luther King Jr. Week, which was also last week. Go figure.) I want to make them and put pink icing on them and bring them to work. If you've ever eaten a gingerbread man, or any other confection in humanoid shape, you cannot sit in judgment of me.

What do you think? Twizzlers for umbilical cords? Too much?

(no subject)

I have realized something:

I like kids and kids like me. We are in L.A. [skipping over harrowing-yet-boring story about canceled flights, rebooking hassles, ice storm horror stories] with Mike's brother and his family, which includes thir newborn twin boys. I'm good at holding them and making them burp. They smile at me in their goofy toothless way.

My year-old niece also seems to like me. Which is ironic, since the rest of my family seems to be at pains to keep her away from me. It's kind of odd to have to explain to my L.A. sister-in-law that I have never once babysat my niece who lives 10 minutes away. Granted, I know next to nothing about babies, but it all seems to be a simple matter of supporting the head, making sure they burp, and the endless cycle of feeding and pooping and changing and sleeping. Amy's reluctant to hand her daughter over to anyone, not just me--but Mandy, perhaps because she has twins, is very comfortable handing one or both over to any reasonably competent person who wants them. For Christmas I gave my niece some blocks. Plain, old-fashioned, painted wooden blocks that do not blink or beep or jingle or sing or light up or talk in three langauges. She loved them almost as much as I did; I built stuff and she knocked it down. Good times. I also accidentally woke her up from a nap; I went in my old bedroom to get a sweater, and when I turned around she was standing up in her portable crib, just looking at me. It was funny and cute and also a bit unnerving: it was clear to me that she's an alive, observant, sentient human person, not just a cute little toy or pet. And that she was sizing me up. I wonder what she thought.

And my L.A. sister-in-law's niece loves me too. She 5, and tonight we built a (fake) gingerbread house and had horseback rides (featuring me as Stella the horse) and tickling. She insisted on sitting next to me at dinner. I think if I had a kid, I'd enjoy the baby- and young-child phases well enough, though what really appeals to me most is having someone to talk to and listen to and mentor and learn from. I'm more about adult conversations than I am about kid stuff, and Elmo gives me the fucking creeps. Still, a person could get used to this.

(no subject)

You know what? I like the smell of cigarette smoke.

Not in overpowering clouds, or in small enclosed spaces, or in my hair or food or whatever. Layer upon layer of smoke in someone's clothes, house, etc. can choke me, even when I'm trying my hardest not to be a sanctimonious jerk of a nonsmoker. But simply washing your hands and/or brushing your teeth and thinking that you have successfully disguised or erased the smell of cigarettes is a special kind of disconnect from reality. Once in my office a student leaned over to use my computer for a minute, and the smell from his jacket alone made me cough--for real, not as a covert message, though that's how he took it: "Get over yourself." My response was "I'll get over myself when you're not six inches away from me."

I'm old enough to have seen firsthand a pretty good overview of the evolution of smoking in this country: from the days when people smoked EVERYWHERE (in hospitals, at work, everywhere--watch any pre-1985 movie, and people are even lighting up cigarettes on freakin spaceships in sci-fi films, for God's sake), when public ashtrays were as common as trash cans or streetlamps. Then we had timidly polite little "smoking areas" that started to appear in malls and hospitals and airplanes and schools; my high school even had a smoking lounge. For students. There were public service ad campaigns to put your "butts" where they belonged and not litter them all over the goddamn place. These were, for the most part, heartily ignored; I remember being about 14 and seeing a woman at the mall sitting under a No Smoking sign, puffing away. I told her there was no smoking, and got immediately scolded by my mom for being "rude" to her. One by one, dorms and schools and businesses became "smoke free," for a variety of reasons; health, safety, economics, and cleanliness dominated, but the subtext was growing clearer: smoking was nasty and low-class. One by one, the sand-filled ashtrays next to comfortable benches disappeared, replaced by the signs showing a cigarette with a red slash through it. If you do see a public ashtray these days, it's next to impossible to recognize as an ashtray, and almost always far from any kind of seating area or shelter. Get the message?

A lady in one of the Titanic's lifeboats expressed outrage at the sight of a fellow (male) survivor smoking a cigarette shortly after the sinking. A century ago, men might smoke together in lounges, but preferably upper-class cigars and pipes, not cigarettes, the cheap comfort of poor workingmen. Smoking in public was considered bad manners, and any kind of smoking by women was most unladylike indeed. This changed mainly because of one thing: Hollywood.

In the movies, tough men smoked. Glamorous women smoked. Sidekicks smoked, heroes smoked, villains smoked, goofy servants and rich girls and ingenues and sultry seductresses smoked....pretty much everybody smoked except Shirley Temple and Lassie. The thing is, it looks amazing. One of the most beautiful things on film, I am convinced, is a skillful play of light, shadow, and lazily swirling cigarette smoke on black and white film. Bette Davis, with her elegant cigarette holder and graceful way of exhaling a plume of white smoke (and that sexy smoky voice it gave her--yikes) shattered several taboos that needed shattering. And only a few generations later, she herself became the taboo. The MPAA now uses depictions of smoking as one of its criteria for assigning a film an "R" rating. When Atonement was in theaters, a lot of the IMDB user comments were all like, "What's up with all the smoking?" But if you want to make a good, convincing period film that takes place between the late 19th and the late 20th century, clothes and hairstyles and costumes and props and scenery are not enough; you have to have smoke. Since your audience can't smell it or taste it, you have to find other ways to make it palpable. (Watch for the smoking-in-the-hospital scene in Jaws.)

Still, I'm glad smoking's on its way out. The worst part of it wasn't the risk of secondhand smoke, or the health or environmental threats, or any of the propaganda: it was the smokers' in-your-faceness, their what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it attitude about smoking. Now they're a minority, and sorry, guys, they really have only themselves to blame. Maybe if they'd been less dickish about the lesser restrictions, we wouldn't have had to resort to measures as draconian as a statewide ban.

But a whiff of it every now and then, a single cigarette's worth of tobacco-y takes me back. I probably associate it with my dad's brother, and the long evenings at his house watching monster movies, making popcorn, having barbecues, lying in front of the fire in the fireplace with my head resting on the dog, and all of it infused with the rich smell of smoke. I spent quite a bit of time at his house, as a kid and later after college. Many were the evenings when, listening to the grownup conversation drone on and one, watching uncle Jim's cigarette smoke swirl up toward the ceiling fan was the only thing that kept me from falling asleep. Even when he wasn't home, the smell lingered pleasantly, as quiet and comforting as the ticking of the grandfather clock, assuring you that he was still around somewhere and would be back soon.

For Christmas 1994 I gave him a pack of cigarettes from England, the box black and stamped with a skull and crossbones and the large white word "DEATH" (a brand I've only ever found in England, and couldn't find at all last time I was there--each cigarette rolled in black paper and stamped with the death's head). My brother and mom urged me not to give it to him, for fear of upsetting him, and I said, "Are you kidding? He'll love it." He loved it. He said that after it was empty he planned to re-use it to carry his regular cigarettes. The union rep he had to meet with for negotiations was always giving him a hard time about smoking, he said, and he couldn't wait to pull this pack out in front of him.

He died in 1995 (though not of smoking--no ironic twist to this story, sorry if I built your hopes up), very suddenly. Part of my aunt's grieving process was to redecorate the house over a period of about a year and a half or two years: new floors, new carpets, new kitchen cabinets, new furniture, replacing everything and starting anew. In a way it wasn't until I walked in and could no longer catch the faint undertone of smoke that I really felt like he was gone. I took one of his flannel work shirts; for awhile it smelled like smoke, though it doesn't anymore.

Every year around the holidays, the members of my family who smoke get up from the warm table and hurry out to the garage or the back porch to light up, often in subfreezing weather. They dance from one foot to another and flap their arms to keep warm, rushing to finish as fast as they can and get back in. It's better this way, I keep telling myself: better for them, better for me, better for society at large. Maybe this will be the final push they need to quit. But part of me knows that this isn't the kind of thing Bette Davis, or my uncle Jim, would have wanted to stick around to see.

Holy Fucking Shit

The above in reference both to a) the length of time since my last post, and b) the current state of the Val-verse.

The latest is that my brother called my mom to complain to her about some of the stuff on my Facebook page. Go ahead and read that sentence again if you have to, slowly; take as much time as you need. My brother. Who is 33 years old. Called my mom. To complain about some of the "anti-Christian, liberal slant" stuff on. My. Facebook. Page.

And then she called me. Yes, I am officially in trouble, at 35 years of age, for being disrespectful, inconsiderate....basically for being everything my family doesn't want me to be. She ordered me to take it down. She pleaded, she verged on tears, she tried anger and worst-case scenarios, she tried to out-reason me, and finally played her trump card (and, I suspect, the real reason she called): my brother WANTS to have a closer relationship with me, but I make it hard by doing things like this, etc. etc.

You can probably imagine what I said in reply.

Actually I stayed pretty calm, because a) things have a way of getting garbled when they go through mom. No one in the family is permitted to talk directly to each other--all communication must be routed through her. This is supposedly done in order to avoid arguments (the undercurrent being that I am so damn difficult to get along with that everyone must approach me cautiously). In reality it ends up causing far more chaos, because things have a way of getting distorted. For all I know, my brother made a passing remark and she blew it waaaay out of proportion. She did seem to assume it was wildly, horribly mocking and blasphemous and offensive, whatever it was. When I explained a bit more about what it actually is, and reassured it that it was nothing on the level of fuck-baby-Jesus-with-a-stapler (which I could STILL say if I wanted to), she was mollified, but only for a moment. Still, something must have got said somewhere, because otherwise mom would never have known what Facebook is, let alone that I have one that I use for liberal heathen brainwashing purposes. She kept hammering on the part about my brother feels "uncomfortable" with stuff like that. I did say, as calmly as I could, that if this is the case, he doesn't have to look. I should have refused to discuss him with her at all.

And now, b):
I could offer you a lot of explanations about my long LJ hiatus--with the dissertation finished, the daily dose of writing is no longer a strict necessity to jump-start the process; the new job consumes a great deal of my time and energy and finger strength, as well as the 2-hour round-trip commute; the myriad frustrations of moving, unpacking, finding new grocery stores and restaurants and dry cleaners and suchlike are both too draining and too mundane to be worth chronicling.

And all that's true. But all of those together make up only about 30% of the reason. The rest is my family, my beloved, rude, selfish, irritating, emotional vampire family who are 180 degrees opposite me on the philosophical spectrum (which is fine) and who are determined to crush this "rebellion" out of me (which is not). I didn't play the game last night, because my energy for this kind of crap is already used up. It might well be the crowning irony of my life if I end up having to cut off my brother and parents now that they live 10 and 15 minutes away, respectively.

Moving back up here, close to my family and where I grew up, with good jobs for both me and Mike, has always been the ultimate goal. And now that it's happened, I seriously consider moving to Russia or Bolivia or Australia. I think I'm going to lose my fucking mind. I liked them better when they were far away, and as long as we had that distance between us, they could pretend I was someone who fit their idea of how I should be. Now I'm here, large as life and twice as ugly, as the saying goes, and no one can pretend anymore. Further ugliness ensues.

They love me, and I love them. There's nothing we wouldn't do for each other, and if I needed anything tomorrow, they'd be there without hesitation. Life and death situations? Crises, financial, professional and/or emotional? We're there for each other. It's the day-to-day bullshit that is going to drive me over the edge.

My mom lives in a fantasy land where my brother longs to be close to me and I push him away. This is the guy who I've seen less than 5 times in the months since we've moved here, who now lives 10 minutes away and talks to me less than he ever has, seldom returns my calls and NEVER returns my emails, avoids my invitations and requests for dinner and socializing, and who refused point-blank to come to my house for Thanksgiving, even when I offered to get the dog out of the house for the day. The whole fam damily piled on to accuse me of being "selfish" and "stubborn" and of "hijacking" the holiday for my own inconsiderate motives. I think I'll spend Christmas in Budapest.

He still can't talk to me except through our mom. And she won't be here forever.

I've been thinking and re-thinking my reasons for wanting or not wanting to have kids. I suspect that, a great deal of the time, people have kids at least partly to have a shot at righting the wrongs of their own pasts. Here in the cyberprivacy of my own little LJ kingdom, I can honestly say I'd rather be child-free the rest of my life than perpetuate this kind of dysfunctional fuckery. Is there no escape?

And for obvious reasons, I can't write this as a Facebook note. Thank the deity of secular reasoning I took my LJ link off my profile. I can say all this to you, and you'll listen and maybe respond. Or not. Is that what the ideal family is?

Memento mori?

Been awhile since I posted.

Many years ago, when I was about 22, I worked with a woman who was about 10 years older. I remember very little about her, though she's popped to mind once or twice since I moved back to Chicago. She was always talking about how she and her husband were going/had gone to the city to this or that restaurant, or concert, or whatever, or about their house and dogs (or were they cats? It's been over a decade). She also definitely had opinions about everything, not sparing me.

What I remember most clearly about her is what she said to me when I told her (and my other co-workers) that my brain tumor had come back. She folded her hands under her chin, rolled her eyes, and said in an exasperated tone, "So the next time you start having headaches and getting symptoms, are you going to go to the doctor right away this time?"

I've mentioned that to my amigo Antonio a few times over the years, and his reactions have ranged from "Yeah, she was a jerk" to "Maybe she meant something other than what you thought. There's more than one meaning to that." NO, NO I'M SORRY, THERE IS NOT. There's really only one correct response to that kind of information ("Oh, I'm so sorry; is there anything I can do, etc."), and her response ain't it.

Tonight Antonio told me that she had died.

She had leukemia, and died in her late 40s. I went and found her website, which chronicled her struggles with diagnosis and years of treatment (including some truly shocking photos, in which she looks absolutely unrecognizable), as well as memorials and tributes to her indomitable spirit, her strength, her kindness, etc.

I'm sorry, but I'm going to say it: she was a bitch.

She criticized me for the clothes I wore, the lunches I ate, the music I listened to at my desk. She hated my pet ferret and criticized me for having him. She was a snob, a superficial suburbanite stereotype only interested in things she could spend money on, and she said one of the cruelest things anyone has ever said to me in my life at a time when I was hurting most. Yes, I'm speaking ill of the dead, but I'd have said exactly the same thing about her several hours ago if you'd asked me, when I would have thought I was speaking ill of the alive. Why is it that we're supposed to wrap someone up in this shroud of hypocrisy after they die?

When I die (and I hate euphemisms for death, so don't expect to read any here), the best tribute anyone could give me is to remember me exactly as I was. Sure, it's be great if there are mostly people lining up to say how great and kind I was, etc., how much I touched them and changed their lives for the better...but I don't want to become a ghost. Or worse yet, a saint. I really hope there are at least some people who are there to add, "Yeah, but she could be a real bitch about her mother/job/students at times;" "She used to get on her high horse about her liberal politics;" "She was usually too stubborn to apologize when she needed to;" "She could go on and on about herself sometimes till everyone was bored to tears;" etc. It's that kind of thing that keeps people alive and human in other people's memories. I'd rather be forgotten than remembered as someone I wasn't. Probably both will happen in the long run.

Even her blog sounds like her: there are a few entries about good times with family, charity fundraisers, etc.....but there are even more that gripe and complain about pain, surgeries, detailed medical procedures, the drama of sitting up in bed and taking liquids, and so forth. Nobody wants to read that shit. I'm saying this as someone who's lived it, more times than I care to count (10, if you want to know, including at least 2 that were life-threatening), and who's tried to write about it. I've never written the whole thing down, and I never will. Because it's simply not inspirational to read about me and my catheter bag, my stitches, my petty day-to-day dramas. That's the worst part about any of it: what if you did write down all the details of the worst, most dramatic thing that ever happened to you, and it just wasn't interesting? Or worse, annoying? I've read too many car crash/breakup/surgery/divorce essays from my students to believe that what shows up big on my radar will even register as a blip on anyone else's.

So I'm sorry she's dead, and I'm sorry she suffered--no one should have to go through that, and I would never, ever under any circumstances have said to her what she said to me. But I refuse to remember her as someone she wasn't, to construct a kinder gentler person than the one she actually was. No, I didn't know her well, but I knew a version of her that she put into the world forever, and I'm here to record it for posterity alongside all the other versions.

If nothing else, it'll keep me aware of how many different versions of me I present to everyone I come into contact with, no matter how much or how little.

A little black humor:

"Update your journal more!"

At the urging of my fan base, I'm updating my damn jourmal already:

I defended my dissertation, got a job, did Karisa's baby shower, put most of my belongings (and many of Mike's) into boxes, moved em up here ("here" is good enough for the internet, but if you want to know where, well, just ask, and if I know you I'll tell), and have been unpacking and buying things and attending orientation and visiting my family and theoretically am making syllabi right now for the classes that begin in less than 36 hours.

That's how I am.

More in another week or so.