Sunday, May 29, 2011

Mourning, Memorials, and Meat

"We need to decorate the graves," said my mom.

Selfishly, shallowly, I thought only of my dad's grave. It was still piled high with dirt and rocks. There were still a few flowers from the funeral strewn about - wilted, limp, beginning to give off the sickening perfume of decay, but still there. It would be weeks - months - before it settled and was able to be covered by grass. Months before it would look normal - like nothing unusual had happened. Months before the wound and indignity it had caused the earth would heal. Months before it would be ready for anything that resembled 'decorating'. I didn't mention any of this. My mom didn't need to be reminded of how fresh my dad's grave was.

No, I didn't mention it. I went with her dutifully as we picked up flowers and gathered trowels and gloves. This was an annual ritual for my mom - one which I hadn't taken part in since I was very young. One which I wasn't particularly enthused about taking part in now. I wanted to be done with cemeteries for a while.

But sometimes, as I am slowly figuring out, it isn't all about what I want.

Traipsing through the cemetery, reading the headstones, I was overwhelmed by the palpable sense of history - the history of my family and the history of our town - our nation. So many graves -each one represented a life. Some represented lives that were all too short - dates that fell much too close together.

Many were already decorated with flags for Memorial Day - all in brass holders indicating the war during which they served. Dad has one from Korea. It had been planted awkwardly - off to the side. A lump rose in my throat, surprising me. It was not a lump born of sadness - that wouldn't have been a surprise. That was - is - the norm. No, this was pride. It caught me off guard.

I looked around at the graves of my ancestors and those surrounding them. Gulf War, Vietnam, Korea, WWI, WWII -I even saw one from the Civil War. So many flags. So many served. I looked towards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There would be a ceremony here in a few days. There would be a parade and flags and poignant speeches. I would go with Mom - she would want to go. It would be a moment for community - for shared grief and pride. Not this moment, though. This moment was for personal grief and pride. I succumbed to it.

The next day was settled upon, after a quick check on the forecast, as the day to decorate Mom's family's graves.

My hometown is beautiful - almost heart-breakingly so. It is a small town, centered in a valley and spreading out over the hills surrounding it. There is a river and there are many creeks. There are lush wooded areas. There are tree-lined streets and houses that do not look anything like those in my own cookie-cutter suburban community. The houses have personality. The town has personality. If I were to extend the personification metaphor, however, a town physician would be likely to prescribe Prozac. It is beautiful, but very depressed.

My mother's hometown, where her parents are buried, is about 30 miles and half a world away.

"We'll pick up kielbasi for our Memorial Day picnic", she said, as she added an empty cooler and some frozen bottles of water to our gear.

"Why would we go all the way out there for kielbasi? Don't they have it at Giant Eagle?"

Ah, silly suburban girl.

Mom smiled. That was nice. Haven't seen a lot of that lately. "We're gonna get the good stuff."

We headed out of town and I was once again struck by the overwhelming beauty of the landscape. Why had I been in such a hurry to leave, all those years ago? Ah, well. Town gave way to bucolic countryside. Mom was driving. She made the turns to her old stomping grounds as if by muscle memory. Now her hometown is a place that has always made me feel sophisticated, cosmopolitan and urbane - three words - and you'll have to trust me on this one - no-one would ever really choose to describe me. All things are relative. There were times in my life, I'm not particularly proud to say, when I liked that feeling - times when it gave me a false sense of superiority. Not this time, though. This time it made me feel uncomfortable - out of place - something that didn't belong in a town that was humming along quite nicely without me or my high-falutin' ways. The town was charming. I was not.

Mom made a couple turns down narrow one-way streets - more like alleys, really. "I know it's around here, somewhere." I sat in the passenger seat drinking it all in. If my hometown was on Prozac, this town was on homegrown weed and moonshine. I loved the stark contrast between this town with all of its Mom and Pop businesses and my suburb with all of its chain stores and restaurants. I found myself wanting to stop the car and walk around -shop, eat - but we were on a mission. Kielbasi or bust.

"Here it is," Mom said, pulling into a dirt clearing by a small, white, non-descript building. There was a steady flow of pick-em-up trucks and muscle cars entering the clearing, parking briefly while their drivers entered the building. There were no signs - not even the hand-painted signs that indicated the businesses on the main streets - just a building, in a dirt clearing, accessible only by a series of one-way alleys.

Maybe when Mom said we were going for the good stuff she hadn't been talking about meat at all. Maybe kielbasi was some sort of weird euphemism for....

We got out of the car and any trace of doubt was erased. We were in the right place. The smell of smoked meats was so thick in the air that I could almost taste the nitrate-y goodness. We opened the door to the building and entered a glorious and foreign land. Mom made a beeline for the counter, where she scored the very last of the kielbasi. I watched a man at the checkout plop a GIANT baggie full of ground meat on the counter. The walls were lined with memorabilia from the Whiskey Rebellion. Although I didn't see it, I know with the same confidence that assures me that the sky is blue that there was not a pistol, but a shotgun behind the counter with the register. A register which was manned, by the way, by a woman who looked exactly like you'd expect her to look - overly tanned, aging skin, big bottle-blonde hair, and a Harley tank top that was just a smidge too tight. Awesome. I wondered for a moment which pick-em-up or muscle car was hers - there had been no bikes in the clearing - then decided it didn't matter. It was all good. Mom paid for her kielbasi and I bought a small jug of local maple syrup.

As we packed the meat into our cooler, I asked my mom why we'd gone there first rather than last. "It closes at noon", was her response.

Of course it does.

We decorated her parents' graves and headed back to town, but not before buying an ice cream cone from a dairy in the middle of a corn field. For lunch. Man does not, as you know, live, by kielbasi alone.

Monday, May 9, 2011

What Do You Mean By That?

That's so gay.

Let's start there.

In my own lifetime (long by the standards of my children, short by the standards of - say - dinosaurs) I have watched that word mean happy, then homosexual, and now - well - I guess in the incarnation stated above it sort of means stupid.

People get really excited about this - like - if someone calls something gay - when they mean that it's stupid - that they are implying that to be homosexual is to be stupid. I'll be honest. My hackles are raised when I hear people saying 'that's so gay'. I simply cannot hear myself using that particular word in that particular way.

But am I being a bleeding-heart liberal reactionist? (It's ok if you say yes. It wouldn't be the first time and I've certainly been called worse.) I've started to wonder that myself. The word is changing - evolving. It doesn't mean what it once did. On the Simpsons episode Lisa's Date With Density (original air date 12/15/96) Jimbo says to Nelson (he says) "You kissed a girl? That's so gay." Hmmmm. Definitely not implying homosexuality there... of course that was intended as a joke, but it wasn't very far-fetched.

Maybe you think my line of reasoning is retarded.

Hey! There's another one! Another example of an evolving word as well as another example of something that raises my hackles. I would never use the term retarded when I meant to say stupid. But again - this is a word that has changed in my lifetime. In my day, mentally retarded was a diagnosis. It was nothing to giggle about, and it was not a put down. Retarded means slow and someone who was mentally retarded was simply someone who took a little bit longer to think about/learn things. It wasn't a negative term, it was a neutral, descriptive term. I used it clinically all the time. Then I learned to put the person before the disability - merely a semantic difference, to be sure, but we all know, if we think about it, that semantics matter. So I would no longer say I was working with a mentally retarded child, I would say I was working with a child with mental retardation. That was not a mean thing to say.

And then suddenly it was.

I read a blog a while ago (I have LONG forgotten where, or I would link it) where a woman who had a child with Downs Syndrome was having a tirade because someone had referred to her daughter as retarded. She said, "sure, it takes her longer to learn things, but that's no reason to call her retarded." Um - I'm pretty sure that's precisely the reason to call her retarded - or , more accurately- to say that she has retardation. Someone mentioned that in her comments and people ripped him a new one - how could he be so ignorant? This was a beautiful, loving child. How could he say something so awful about her?


I guess that word had transformed more completely than I'd thought.

At least gay still DOES mean homosexual in most circles - even if people may not specifically be using that definition of it when they say 'that's so gay'. (It NEVER means 'happy' or 'bright' anymore. That meaning has been completely obliterated) Retarded apparently has nothing to do with the clinical condition of being a slow learner anymore. It is just a pure and simple cut.

I was teaching a class once and we were talking about a particular birth defect. One of the symptoms of this was mild to moderate retardation. I remember stumbling over the word when I had to say it in class the way my children tell me their teachers stumble over the word 'nigger' when it appears in literature they're reading. (I can only imagine. Thank goodness I never had to teach a course where THAT was necessary! I stumbled just typing it...) Even when it (retardation - not that other one - which I'm not going to type again) is not being used in a derogatory sense, it has apparently evolved so much that the original meaning has been lost and what is left is ugly.

I do make a more than tiny effort to be politically correct - so these words - when they are used negatively - still do have an effect on me.

I don't like them. They make me uncomfortable.

I'm not alone.

There are multi-media campaigns out there to get us to stop saying 'that's so gay' or 'that's so retarded'. People care about this. People care about words. Words are powerful.

But I wonder...

Should we just back off a little bit and let the words naturally evolve?

I just finished reading The Lexicographer's Dilemma by Jack Lynch. If you dig words, you might enjoy it. (See what I did there? Dig? I'm relatively certain no one pictured anything involving a shovel or a backhoe when I used that term. It's outdated slang, sure, but the meaning was clear - even though it has nothing to do with the original meaning of the word.) He does not cite any examples of 'gay' or 'retarded', but I found myself thinking about those two words a lot as I read this book. They're changing. My outrage may boil down to much ado about nothing (as righteous outrage so often does, in the grand scheme of things).

An example, taken from the above mentioned book, p. 193:

The word nice shows just how far a common word can drift from its etymon. The root is the Latin nescire 'to be ignorant'..........When nice made its first appearance in English, around the year 1300, it meant "foolish, silly, simple." These senses died out in the seventeenth century, but along the way nice had picked up a new group of meanings, including "wanton, dissolute, lascivious" and "Precise or particular in matters of reputation or conduct; scrupulous, punctilious."

Starting late in the sixteenth century, the "scrupulous" meaning evolved into "refined, cultured; associated with polite society," then into "respectable, virtuous, decent," a sense first cited from one of Jane Austen's letters from 1799: "The Biggs would call her a nice woman." Shortly before Austen was born, nice also came to mean "That one derives pleasure or satisfaction from; pleasant, agreeable, satisfactory"; from there it was only a short jump to "pleasant in manner, agreeable, good-natured," first attested in 1797, and the meaning that most people assume nice has always had.


Once upon a time, if I referred to you as nice, it would mean that I was essentially calling you out as a whore.


I have a prediction. I think the next word to make the shift will be special.

You heard it here first.

I could be wrong (it happens), but I'm probably not.

Special. Different, unique, unexpected. Sort of like queer.


Words are like us - they grow, they evolve, they shift.

For some reason, my earworm, as I write this, is: History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of men ~Blue Oyster Cult, Godzilla.

Just me?


(And because I like you, here is an incredibly groovy version of said song. Shout out to my college peeps......)

(And because I know a bass player or two are reading - a more recent version. No 3:00 am bowls or paper mache monster drummers, but a Rudy Sarzo solo that is too fun to miss.)

And that's why you have to like me. Because I can start out talking about currently controversial words, quote a lengthy etymological reference as well as the Simpsons and wrap it up with not one but two Blue Oyster Cult videos and somehow make it all fit.

Well, it all fits in my mind, anyway...