Humor

She was about five weeks old. It was too young, but “Take her now, or we’ll take care of her.” They didn’t mean letting her stay with her mother for a few more weeks. At least she was weaned.

She was the not-very-runty runt of the litter. Black, with the tiniest of white spots on her belly. Her mother was half Siamese, and her father was presumed to be the same Siamese that was her uncle. Being black earned her the name “Humor.”

She wasn’t happy about being taken away from her mother. She spent the first evening yowling at the top of her lungs. The first night, too. Putting her on my chest, where she could feel my heartbeat, helped for about five minutes. Eventually, she went back into the cat carrier, as far from the bedroom as she could be, with towels over it to muffle the noise and just a little bit of air space left. She was still loud.

Over time, she settled into a bedtime routine that involved lying across the back of my neck and getting her face scritched for a little while before prowling the house, yowling, of course. She’d settle down after a while, but she never did lose the tendency to wander into a corner and yowl like a lost soul. She’d come running out if you called her name, terribly happy to find people, but she spent more time lost in closets than any cat I’ve known.

Once she got bigger, the routine changed again: demand I go to bed, stand on me and knead in an ecstatic trance until she came to again, then lie down for petting with her face in mine until she got bored. I was Mom.

In fact, I was all her people, and anyone else was viewed with suspicion at best. Strange voices in the house meant she was nowhere to be found, although if people stuck around for long, they might be graced with a glimpse of her. Those who came by often enough might be allowed to pet her briefly. Eventually, she allowed my husband to pick her up and hold her.

She was never the bravest of cats. She ran away when I sneezed, which was sadly and funnily ironic in such a danderous cat. Trips to the vet involved the drawing of blood–my blood–for getting her into the cat carrier the first time. Once we were in the car, she had to be let out and snuggled up on my chest if we wanted any hope of hearing other traffic.

She was determined, though. Enough heat was worth lying across the vanes of the radiator. No matter how many times she was yelled at for playing monster under the bed, ankles were always fair game. When I sat in front of the computer, the back of my chair was her preferred spot, with just a bit of her draped over my shoulder. When I read in the big, comfy chair, she’d settle onto one arm for a little while after enough petting, then wander between me and the book when she decided I’d ignored her long enough. And people food…well, she’d generally stay at a polite distance as long as I was actually eating. After that, all bets were off.

It was the eating that tipped me off. Humor had always been good about telling me when she needed more food or water: meow, wander in the appropriate direction, look accusing until I followed and fixed her problems for her. It took a few days to notice that, while she was getting fussy about her water being dirty, she wasn’t making much dent in her food. Last I saw her alive, she was busily tucking into some moist food that I’d given her to tempt her palate.

This morning, the moist food was mostly gone, and she was lying underneath the computer desk, where the warm air from the fan blows. She was racked out on her side , the way she usually slept. Usually, however, she would wake when I walked into the room. Not today, and not ever again.

I made my husband make sure she wasn’t just ill. I’m making him move the body, as well. She was the softest cat I’ve ever met, a medium-hair made up of just the fluffy underfur. I want to remember that, and I want to remember her as warm and pliant, tucked under my chin or curled neatly into my lap. I have seventeen years of those memories, of her being very much my cat, and those are the memories I want to keep fresh.

Oh, sweetest little black cat, how I will miss you. How I miss you now.

Malingering

I was thirteen, which means I was in eighth grade. I hated school for numerous reasons mostly having to do with being a poor geek in a rich suburb in the status-obsessed eighties. I hated gym class for the very similar reason that almost everything was turned into a competition. After all, what better idea is there than making blood-thirsty teenagers play dodge ball (except maybe stranding them on a desert island)?

I liked swimming, both because water was home and because I’d been doing it competitively for a few years in a state where summer wasn’t strictly bounded by holidays. All that practice meant that when one of the snobby kids wanted to put me in my place with a swimming competition, they got their asses kicked. Okay, beating one of them while doing the backstroke instead of freestyle was just showing off, but it was fun.

I liked running, too. Like swimming, it was an opportunity to be by myself, even in a class full of other people. I was a decent sprinter and an okay distance runner until I ran out of breath. I never did manage to condition that up properly, despite walking a mile to school every day with a nice uphill section in the middle.

Then I started liking running less. One day, my foot hurt. I didn’t remember injuring it, but I figured I must have. I wasn’t screaming with pain, but I limped. The gym teacher looked at me funny but let me sit out a day. Then a second day. Then the look was less funny, and I was told to get out there and try.

It hurt, of course, every time I flexed my foot. But I could do it. The pain, just as it had started, never got so acute that I was afraid I was hurting myself more. Sometimes it even waned. Then it waxed again. But I’d already learned I could run through the pain. It was better than that look and all it implied. I even taught myself to walk without the limp.

I think it was the next year that my knees started to hurt. Same gym teacher, though, so I knew better than to sit anything out. As long as I could do it through the pain, the pain couldn’t really be that bad, and I shouldn’t use it as an excuse. For not doing something I’d like to do until it hurt.

It wasn’t until I was sixteen, riding the bus to a more-distant school and no longer required to take gym, that I saw the doctor about my foot and my knees. That may have been the first time I saw a doctor in that period. It may just have been the first time I said anything about this pain that I’d gotten used to living with. I don’t remember. Things were complicated then.

It was arthritis. The toe got a whopping huge shot of cortisone, which burns like you can’t imagine if you’ve never had it. A couple hours later, it was fine, a condition that persisted for more than a decade. The knees were more difficult, since my kneecaps are slightly malformed, but I was given exercises to strengthen the appropriate muscles to keep my kneecap from grinding into the rest of my knee.

That’s what I’d been living with for three years. That and exercise-induced asthma, but it was even more years later before I figured out that being out of breath after a run doesn’t make most people really struggle for air and cough to clear obstructions that can’t be cleared. Well, the arthritis, the asthma–and that look on my gym teacher’s face that said I was faking it, relying on a tiny boo boo to get me out of work.

I wanted to take the diagnosis back to my teacher and rub her face in it. I still don’t know whether I should have. There are so many forces in our society telling us that as long as we can limp along, the only thing that’s really wrong with us it that we’re not doing it with smiles on our faces.

So I’ve learned how to smile, just as I learned how to run and how to walk without a limp. Real smiles, too, the kind that will fool experts. I’ve learned how to push enough air over the reddest vocal cords to defeat laryngitis long enough to allow the smallest of small talk. I’ve learned to look attentive when I’m falling-down tired. I’ve trained, “I’m doing well, and you?” as the automatic response to the polite question that isn’t really interested.

Of course, I haven’t learned how to feel any better. I haven’t learned how to keep from resenting the world zipping past me when I have to stop or the people who can’t see through the facade.

Most of all, I haven’t learned how to stop feeling like a malingerer when I stop short of running. I know that the best thing I can do when I’m sick is sleep. I know that sitting up will just make my joints hurt more and that my temperature will fluctuate broadly, requiring that I have quite a bit of control over my coverings. I know that migraine-induced vertigo is much less likely to make me nauseated if I don’t move around a lot. I know that in the past year, I’ve used five days of PTO for vacation, and all the rest has gone to sick time.

None of that makes me feel any less like I’m slacking off. None of it makes me feel any less useless when I’m not getting something done. None of it makes me feel that it is any less shameful to limp. And none of it makes me feel any less like someone is going to come along and look at me as though I’m making it all up.

Happy Birthday

I first met my friend James a bit over 10 years ago (well, we’d been in the same place a couple of times before that, but we hadn’t really met). It took me several years after that to get to know him, though, and not because we didn’t spend a lot of time together.

Mutual friends of ours held–“parties” is probably too formal a word, let’s say “at homes”–nearly every Friday night for a few years before they moved out of state. If you knew when and where to show up, the company and the atmosphere were great. James and his wife, Sara, and my husband and I were the most regular of guests. I came to know Sara pretty well and heard plenty about the great joy that was her masters thesis. But James….

James was generally just off to the side with his laptop, typing incomprehensible gibberish. I say that advisedly. There are plenty of programming languages I don’t know well, but they don’t look like gibberish. James speaks Spanish, Klingon, a few standard computer languages…and machine code.

He was writing an operating system. He was sitting at these, admittedly informal, social events and writing FreeDOS while the rest of us talked about gardening, grad school, writing and general silliness.

FreeDOS was meant to replace MS-DOS, for which Microsoft had announced they would discontinue support. It was meant to allow people to continue to use older software and hardware long after the big money-making machine said they should be obsolete, even if they still had all their working parts.

That’s what FreeDOS did. It allowed people who couldn’t afford to buy a new computer every three years to continue to operate. It allowed people who still loved their low-res games to keep pulling them out and playing them when nostalgia gripped them. It allowed people to buy a PC with an operating system on it without being beholden to Microsoft. FreeDOS did what it set out to do.

James has been stepping away from the FreeDOS project over the last couple of years. It will run on without him, most likely. There are people as dedicated to the project (obsessed) as James has been. But it’s time for James to let his baby make its own way.

FreeDOS is 15 years old today. It’s young for most people’s babies to be on their own, but it’s downright venerable for an operating system.

James, happy birthday to your baby. And even though we teased you about it at the time, it’s amazing cool that I had the honor of being there while it happened.

How Deep the Bullet Lies, Part III

This story I’ve already told, at least the first part of it.

It was a perfectly normal guy who didn’t want to let go of me when I was in my late teens. We’d been hanging out, kissed a little bit, but I was done. He wasn’t. It took making it very clear that one of us was going to be injured to get him to realize I meant it and let go.

If I had been more intimidated (he was a big Navy boy) or less sober or less willing to risk hurting him or being hurt, there’s a very good chance it would have ended in rape. The fact that he was horrified when he figured out I really did mean it wouldn’t have changed that at all.

Unlike the events in Part I and Part II of this series, this wasn’t a traumatic experience. Quite the opposite. Oh, it was scary enough while it was happening, but the fact that fighting back solved the problem was…cathartic. Educational.

Then, nearly two decades later, I decided to mention it. That was also educational. Not terribly cathartic.

I’ve had a friend decide to “walk away” over everything that happened in the last week and a half. I discovered that the person whose behavior I asked my friend to look at, thus dragging him into the whole mess, was using me and everyone else to generate controversy and pull attention to a cause he’d adopted. (Why do I believe Jason? This, mostly. It’s all too familiar: the big idea, the disregard for whether anyone else has consented to participate or is being hurt, the “regret” that changes no behavior.)

I’ve learned a few things about myself. I’ve learned just how stubbornly determined I am to see some things through and to get something worthwhile even out of awful situations. I’ve learned much more about the limits of how far I can push myself into the territory of using myself up.

I’ve learned how sane and self-sufficient I sound even when I’m on the verge of cracking. Funny, even. I can’t drop all that, apparently. I can take someone apart and lay the pieces out for everyone to see, but I can’t lash out (even when it’s the kinder option). I can tell someone what I need, but I can’t make them feel it. The more that’s at stake, the less I’m able to make myself manipulate the situation.

I’ve learned how far I’ll go to protect my voice, including removing it entirely from play. There’s only one person who knows how close I came to deleting this blog and walking away from the internet. I found the support I needed and wrote these instead, amping up instead of shutting down, but the outcome was very much in doubt for a while.

I’ve learned how it feels to be on the receiving end of that off-topic kindness and silliness in the midst of a tough slog. I owe D.C., Ambivalent Academic, Will, Becca, DuWayne and Jason for that in ways I can’t quite express. Toaster, too, even if he wasn’t specifically trying to lighten the mood. I grin every time I see that cartoon.

But that’s enough about me and what I’m taking away from (hoo, boy) the first half of this month. This series of posts was originally intended to say something about the fact that we can’t know who we’re talking to when we’re talking about tough topics like this. I don’t know whether it’s done that, but either way, it’s time to shift the focus away from me. Back to the broader topic tomorrow.

For now, go find something fun to read at the blogs that are supporting Silence Is the Enemy with their page-view revenue. As always, Bioephemera has much that is weird and wonderful. Go read and marvel.

How Deep the Bullet Lies, Part II

I was fifteen and sitting in the back of a pickup truck in a parking lot at UW-Stout on Christmas Eve eve. We’d gotten a bit off track.

On track would have been meeting the guy to whom I was going to “lose” my virginity. Virginity didn’t actually mean anything to me, but mine was getting annoying. I kid you not, there were two guys, uncle and nephew but very close in age, arguing over which one of them was going to take my virginity nine months down the road when I turned sixteen and was legal.

I had other plans, which included shutting these guys up already. They also included the younger brother of the fiance of a friend of mine. They didn’t include everybody but me, my friend, and her fiance’s father working until sometime that evening, but they all were. Hence the diversionary road trip until we could pick up younger son.

There was a topper on the back of the truck and maybe a heater. I don’t remember it being freezing. I do remember being offered a rum and Coke. My friend, who at eighteen was hoping she was pregnant, didn’t drink anything. I’m not sure whether I had a second drink.

I’m not chatty, so I didn’t really notice how hard I’d been hit until it was time to climb out of the back of the truck and back into the cab. If I didn’t have a second drink and the rum wasn’t 151, I was drugged.

He insisted that I sit between him and my friend. Then he unzipped his pants and explained that unless and until I “lent him a hand,” we weren’t going anywhere.

So I did. I was too intoxicated to think to counter-threaten with the fact that he’d already committed one federal felony by hauling me across state lines to get me drunk. I had nowhere to go, because I was trapped between him and my sober, silent “friend.” My one coherent thought was that this would be a very useful time for that passing out thing some people did around alcohol. I did that too.

I couldn’t stay passed out through the whole ride home, though, probably because it wasn’t safe. So there are nightmare flashes here and there of streetlamp illumination moving at freeway speeds. I remember being back at my friend’s house, younger son showing up after work, losing that pesky virginity because it was part of the plan (if not necessarily right then) and because if I didn’t follow the plan, I’d have to figure out what else to do.

My friend told younger son a few days later what had happened. It was apparently important to explain to him why I didn’t want to date him, although the truth is that he was very sweet but not that bright. She never said anything to me about why she didn’t try to stop it.

Every few years, she sends a note saying she’d like to catch up. She sent another one yesterday.

Lessons learned: (1) Letting someone mix your drinks means trusting them with your life. (2) The number of your friends is much smaller than the number of people you hang out and kid around with.

As I said before, I’m writing this now for the one person who deserves to know. I’m posting it because there are a few others who might get something out of it. I’ve never talked to anyone about it, not for any of (what I assume are) the standard reasons, but because I don’t want to spend any more time or energy on it. Even then, I knew people who’d been through far worse experiences and far worse betrayals.

This might be painful to you, which I understand and am sorry about. I still don’t want to talk about it. Or hear about it. If you feel you need to write something, Sheril’s got some suggestions about where your note can do some good for people who need it, badly. If that’s not enough for you, she has some other suggestions about things you can do to help those people. Not all of them involve your money. Do those instead.

How Deep the Bullet Lies, Part I

It was the summer before fifth grade, so I was nine. My father had moved out, for reasons that no one would explain for a quarter century, so money was a bit tight.

We ended up with a boarder. I was nine, so what do I know, but he seemed fairly old to me. I’ll guess now that he was in his late forties or his fifties. Friendly guy named Howard. From my mother’s perspective, he was a godsend. He took care of us.

He took the whole family out to breakfast on Sundays. I’d eat the pancakes, then go into the bathroom and throw them up. It turned out that I’m sensitive to milk and needed to spend a year avoiding the stuff, but I now eat cheese and ice cream and drink mochas. I don’t eat pancakes. I don’t let myself throw up either.

He babysat too, when my mother needed an evening out. He would pull out magazines to show my younger brothers, ask them how they felt about what they were seeing. He wanted me to look and talk and show too, but as long as there were younger and more compliant children around, I could refuse. Not get away, because that would have meant being alone and more vulnerable, but not have to participate. I still learned far more than I needed to know at nine, none of it useful for doing anything more than separating me further from the other kids my age.

It stopped after a friend stayed the night and told her mother. Mine wanted to know why we hadn’t told her. I don’t know that we had any answers, but having been raised to do nothing in bad situations, I’m not surprised.

He went away. I don’t think he was charged, because I don’t remember having to talk with anyone about what happened. There are plenty of things I don’t remember from that age, though.

Lessons learned: (1) Protecting yourself often means failing others who need protection too. (2) Someone will always question how you handle it.

I’m writing this now for the one person who deserves to know. I’m posting it because there are a few others who might get something out of it. I’ve never talked to anyone about it, not for any of (what I assume are) the standard reasons, but because I don’t want to spend any more time or energy on it. There are things that did me far more damage. In all the stuff I carry around with me, this one is a minor scar.

It might not be minor to you, which I understand. I still don’t want to talk about it. Or hear about it. If you feel you need to write something, Sheril’s got some suggestions about where your note can do some good for people who need it, badly. If that’s not enough for you, she has some other suggestions about things you can do to help those people. Not all of them involve your money. Do those.

Why I Care About Rules

Laden, the hilarious thing is that you think anyone other than you and Zvan gives a flying fuck about your “rules” gibberish. And it appears that it is your approach to “rules” has been soundly smacked in the face by the nature of objective fucking reality, no? You do know what it means when you look around you, and you perceive everyone as an idiot and an asshole and a participant in a conspiracy, right?

Comrade PhysioProf

Leaving aside the factual errors and the ad hominem and the appeal to the bandwagon (I think that’s everything), I’d like to thank CPP for this comment. It reminds me that there’s something I left out of my original post on this topic–the why.

Why do I care about rules? That one’s easy. I spent the first too many years of my life in a house with far too many rules.

We’re talking rules like “Kids don’t say, ‘No,'” and we’re talking about applying those rules to two-year-olds. If you haven’t spent much time around small children, you may not know this, but “No” is more than just a word. It’s a stage of development in toddlers. But that apparently doesn’t matter much when it’s against the rules.

When I say too many rules, well, my mother used to tell an illustrative story. She’d say that if someone told me to jump, I’d freeze. It didn’t matter that not jumping was defiance and against the rules, because no matter how I jumped–how high, how far, which direction–it was going to be wrong. I’d still be breaking the rules. So I did nothing.

So, yes, I’m fairly sensitive to arbitrary rules and to rules that ignore the needs and capacities of human beings and to rules that hinder development and to systems of rules that make it impossible for someone to both act and be in compliance. Not to mention to rules with disproportionate consequences for breakage. They’ve been there all my life, and it’s taken a hell of a lot of work to see them clearly enough to set them aside.

Even if Greg and I were the only people who cared about abusive rules and abuse of rules (and one of the things I love about him is that he got this without me ever having to explain it), I’d still be talking about this. CPP can call it an obsession or gibberish or whatever other words make him happy. It doesn’t matter. He can’t shut me up by telling me we don’t talk about these things. He doesn’t make my rules.

I do.

Stage Kiss

I almost didn’t get cast. I was friends with the director, Greg, who invited me to read for the part. Then he couldn’t decide whether he liked me in the role or just liked me. Luckily for me, his assistant director liked me too and told him to stop dithering.

As an aside, Greg had a better than average reason to be wary about me. The night we met almost destroyed his reputation on campus.

Get the rest of both stories at Quiche Moraine.

Electric Blue

The first time I saw the fiddle, it must have been brand new, or nearly. We were both new to the band, him as a musician, me as audience. And dancer.

It’s the kind of music that demands all your attention when you’re dancing. Songs in things like 17/12 time, with half-improvised breaks and bridges and plenty of competition between the band members to keep things fresh from show to show. Every song a new rhythm. Every bar a potential about face.

You can’t think about this stuff. You’ll fall behind. You have to watch, and you have to guess where it’s going next. You can’t be drunk, either. A drink is fine–it keeps you from trying to think when you shouldn’t–but too many and you’ll be lost, only good for pogoing like too many people in the crowd. No good for dancing.

Watching the stage, it would have been impossible to miss the fiddle. Electric fiddle, electric blue. Almost as many pedals as there were on the guitar.

There was the constant question of when the mass of black, curly hair would finally get caught up in the bow or the strings, but it never did. The other question was how such virtuosity on that tiny instrument came out of such huge fingers. They couldn’t really move that quickly and precisely, could they? Why, that pinky ring was big enough to fall off my thumb without help. I know. I tried it.

The thing about watching the band that closely, about dancing when everyone else is moshing (well-placed, unpredictable elbows can almost always buy you room), is that the band notices you too. Something about the grin when you’re following a new song and doing it well maybe. Or just knowing that you’re there because of what they’re doing, not because you just wanted to get out.

He called me “Grandma” because I told him I didn’t date younger men. It fell into the category of silly lies, since we were two weeks apart in age. Still, it did what it was supposed to do, and gracefully. I don’t know that we ever talked about anything that wasn’t related to music or the band. We had a lot more to say to each other when we were a little further apart, separated by the edge of a stage.

Then, after a few years, the other fiddle player came back, and the blue fiddle went home. It wasn’t the same. The other guy was good, but…well, it was just a fiddle.

I’ve seen the blue fiddle only once since then. It wasn’t such a uniform blue anymore, worn to the wood in spots, and the hair was gone as well. The fiddle was still electric, though, and we still didn’t have to talk, just play and watch and dance. If the rest of the band had remembered how to play together, it could have been perfect. As it was, it was almost enough.

Still, not quite. At least (at least!) one day of every year, I miss that electric blue fiddle terribly.

Today is that day.

A Eulogy in Food

In the beginning, she cooked for me. In the end, I cooked for her.

The food my grandmother cooked for me was the staples of the fifties, food from cans and boxes, but she made it work in a way I never did. Her au gratin potatoes were creamy and cheesy. Her casseroles didn’t taste alike, even though cream of mushroom soup was the main ingredient of all of them. Jello salads behaved for her. None of this two inches of fruit on the top and none in the bottom.

The food I cooked for her was improvisational and made from scratch. A couple of ham and pork shoulder bones taking up room in the freezer. Turn them and the leek ends into stock and add…hmm, what have we got? We froze some of the ham. Potatoes, I think, for starch and onions and corn to add some sharp and sweet notes. A little paprika, just because. Call it soup.

She’d cooked for more than seventy years but always talked toward the end about all the new things she was eating. My grandfather said the same thing, but his tone was more of relief than wonder. For me, my grandmother’s cooking was the comfort food of my childhood. Unlike a lot of food I ate as a kid, I don’t hate it now. I miss it.

I’m going to miss her, too, even though we had about as much in common as our cooking styles would suggest. I’ll miss the fidgeting and fussing. I’ll miss the worrying about everyone and everything. I’ll miss her never quite getting that the fact that we could take care of her meant we could take care of ourselves. I’ll even miss her perpetual wonder that my husband and brothers cook just as well as I do.

I’ll miss the cookies every Christmas, but I’m happy to know that they weren’t store-bought cookies this last year. They were, sometimes, in recent years. This year, she found the energy somewhere. That consoles me almost as much as knowing it was one big stroke that took her, instead of all the tiny ones that got her mother.

Just over a day with some brief confusion but mostly unconsciousness. Knowing that helps. Knowing that my grandfather will need easy-to-prepare food in her absence helps a little more.

Time to go cook. It’s a different kind of comfort food.