we burn our dead

According to the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia in 1222 the Estonians even disinterred the enemy’s dead and burned them. It is thought that cremation was believed to speed up the dead person’s journey to the afterlife and by cremation the dead would not become earthbound spirits which were thought to be dangerous to the living. [Cite.]

None of this would have happened if I hadn’t had my medication adjusted back in September. I’d been a shambling zombie of depression, and while I can’t say that it won’t come back, because that monster always does, I’ve got a bit of distance from it now.  Most of the time. Not always. But I’m doing better.

One thing the medication hasn’t fixed is that I feel like a blatant fraud whenever I go Do The Things, and most of the time I am desperately hoping a Designated Responsible Adult will show up. That’s anxiety, more than depression, but they feed off each other. Round and round they go. You’re not fooling anybody, it says, trying to be responsible when we both know half an hour ago you were outside catching lizards.

Which is why yesterday — or today; it’s the dark hours of the night — was so interesting.

My family kept trying to talk me out of showing up to my uncle’s memorial. You don’t have to go, they said; your mom’s doing her physical rehab and might need you around; you just lost a friend this week already. But I thought about Thich and the things I learned from him, and decided that if they wanted me to be there, I’d be there. Like nursing Riley through her final illness, or being there during Miss Clavel’s surgery, it wasn’t about me, it was about what I could give.

I spoke with the younger of my two cousins about it. I told her, “It’s up to you, if you guys want me there, I’ll be there.” She thought about this a bit and said, “Okay. I’m going to be selfish, I want to see you.” So it was decided.

Then there was a mad rush to get appropriately funereal clothes because, although we are a clan of lulzy derps, we stick to the Old World Traditions in the weirdest ways. You always turn out properly for big life events like weddings and funerals, and we’re fussy about cutlery too. And superstitions, but I’ve already written about those.

Amber gave me a nice spaghetti-strap dress, and at the thrift I found a cardigan to put over it (my aunt thought they were a set, they went so well) and clompy platform sandals that delighted my inner grunge teenager.

I was all on track, everything ready, when Josie threw a wrench into my plans by developing spontaneous and slightly horrific GI difficulties. She had a bad case of splatterbutt, is what I’m getting at, and she had it in the house. A few times. All night.

It seems that every time I wind up at a familial gathering I do so on very little sleep and too much coffee.  I really wish I knew why this happens. I probably don’t eat enough herring.

I promise, it starts getting funny now.

I woke up in a rush after snoozing my phone alarm for a solid hour, and panicked my way through coffee, checking on Josie, taking Josie out, taking a shower, taking Josie out, more coffee, an unexpected rambling call from Miss Clavel where she asked for my opinion but really wanted me to validate hers and argued when I didn’t agree, and then more coffee. Amber, who along with her boyfriend has been staying with me the past week and will for a bit longer, was helpful by occasionally yelling YOU’RE STILL UP, RIGHT? She knows me so well.

Note that at no point was food involved, though I did manage to remember my meds.

I called the vet to double-check which bland food is best for dogs with splatterbutt, and after I told them what was up (Josie, problem, funeral soon, ARGH ARGH ARGH HELP) the guy on the phone said the best thing anyone could say at that point.

“Says here you have the wellness plan, so if you want, you can drop her off here and we’ll take a look at her while you’re busy.”

What I heard: “FREE PUPPY DAYCARE. CLEANED UP AFTER BY PROFESSIONALS. YOU WILL NOT COME HOME TO A CRATE THAT HAS BECOME A SEPTIC TANK.”

Thus it was that when I dashed out the door in my psedo-WASP funeral garb, but with my pink running shoes on because I wasn’t wearing the others until I had to, toting my purse, my backpack with civvies inside, and my water bottle, I also had not-so-little-anymore Josie tagging along, farting pungently as she went.

IMG_20130911_113017

This is not from that morning, but it adequately shows her WHO ME? face. I love that stinkin dog.

When we got to the vetshop I went tearing through to the back, where I tried to compose myself, and what came out was more or less this: “Hi I do not want to be that jerk but I am running so late to a funeral it’s like a hundred damn miles and I talked to people on the phone earlier about my dog having gut issues and someone said they’d keep her here and look at her while I’m at the funeral and. God. Sorry.” Then I breathed back in.

In a Nice Dress and battered pink and grey running shoes. As one does.

After filling out some forms (Please give us a description of fecal consistency: Evil pudding) and handing my pup over, I was back on my way. I got on the highway, made sure Josie hadn’t eaten the directions I’d copied the night before, cranked the radio up, and put the pedal down.

Some thirty minutes later, I got off on the right exit, but then everything else went wrong.

I have a problem with Lakeland/Winter Haven, or maybe more accurately it has a problem with me. It doesn’t want me there. I’m like a homing pigeon with a magnet strapped to its head. It does not help that none of the roads are straight, each of them has three names, and they seem to alternate which name is advertised on the street signs at random. There is nothing resembling any kind of highway or other Road Upon Which One Quickly Covers Ground once you get off the interstate. You have to drive slowly, not only because the signs say so, but also because the retirees boxing you in with Lincoln Towncars give you no choice in the matter.

Were they drunk when they laid all the roads out?

Were they drunk when they laid all the roads out?

I did not ask my aunt for directions because, bless her, I can never understand the way she gives them. I think like a GPS: I need street signs, lefts and rights. She counts stop lights and names landmarks. So instead of, say, scooting along until I hit Old Dixie Highway (this is a real road out there) and going right, she would have me in a permanent panic wondering if this Burger King is the one that has the IHOP at the intersection where I need to turn left and keep going until there’s a Walgreens at which point I turn right and wait for the enormous row of factories and there’s a kinda-left there.

(If/when you read this, you know I love you, right?)

My directions worked, and I got where I needed to go. The funeral home had its name prominently blazoned on a big sign, and it was next to a cemetery, and it had two cars parked out front. I wondered if I’d missed the ceremony. I contorted myself in the car, taking off my sneakers and putting on The Clompy Tall Shoes, put my sweater on demurely over my fuchsia bra straps, grabbed my bag, and went inside. I asked a nice old man at the front desk if I’d missed the service for my uncle.

It turned out that while it is a local business, they have expanded operations and have two facilities in Winter Haven. The memorial was at the other one.

FFFFUUUUHHHHHHHHHHHH.

“Okay,” I said to the nice old man, and I wish I could have seen my face because a mix of Trying To Be Polite and Trying Not To Panic probably makes me look like a murderous axe-wielding maniac, “how do I get there?”

He started to talk about lefts and rights and a 7-11 and an apartment building. I held up a hand and said, “I’d better write this down.” He ambled off to look for paper, and I fished for a pen in my purse. I came up with the sonic screwdriver that lights up and makes noises, right as he came back.

Correction: I must have looked like a maniac about ready to kill someone with some kinda whiz-bang plastic toy.

The nice old man, who I am sure deals with weirder things than me in his line of work every day, proceeded to start saying exactly what he was saying before, except this time he drew me a map on an enormous sheet of paper as he talked.

whut.

What.

I thanked him, confused, then went back to the car, where I turned it on and stared at the map. I was already forgetting things. The big round part was a lake, obviously, and the long hatched line was a railroad track, and the other lines were intersections, but not all of them and… huh?

Then I noticed the address in the corner (Josie nommed it a bit on our way home later) and, deciding that technology was the better part of valor, I plugged it into the Google Maps thing on my phone.

A button popped up: Get Directions.

I pushed it.

A canned tinny voice said, “Turn left. Turn left.”

HOLY SHIT MY PHONE HAS A GPS NAVIGATOR IN IT!

I found my way to the other funeral home without incident, but very slowly, and as I pulled up I was over an hour late. I noticed that I did indeed pass a 7-11 and some railroad tracks and a “thing like a hill with apartments on it but you don’t turn up there.”

This other funeral home had a parking lot jam-packed and two people standing outside. I pulled into what should have been a parking spot and rolled my window down. They walked to me.

“Is this the memorial for [uncle]?” Yes, it was, and the reception was underway. “Great. Where can I park?” They said it wasn’t marked as a parking spot, but it certainly looked like one. “Hey, as long as I don’t get towed, I’m happy.” They doubted I would be. “I’m sorry. I’m from Tampa.” They said that was okay.

I think I said that last bit about ten times, in different places.

Inside I found a very somber-looking man in a suit who led me to the reception area when I asked where it was. As soon as I was in the room my aunt spotted me. She is very small and moves very quickly. What she said next came out as one big word as she latched on and squeezed me.

“OHHJULIEHIIISOGOODTOSEEEYOUUUUU.” Breath. “The service was hysterical! I’m sorry you missed it! He kept cracking jokes, one after another, it was so funny.”

… my family, ladies and gentlemen. You see where I get it.

I apologized for being late, and was told it was wonderful I was there at all, and then I got led around to find people I knew. There weren’t many; the local Estonian Contingent has gotten pretty small since the immigrant generation died, and some of the others didn’t show up. But I got to see my cousins, both daughters of the deceased and another somewhat more distantly related, and we all caught up. Especially the latter; he and I had run around at my uncle Hans’ place on Anna Maria (my grand-uncle, his grandfather) when we were kids, and I hadn’t seen him in forever, so I got thoroughly interrogated.

He and I talked about the cremation thing, which was funny. “We go the Viking way,” he said. I told him what I’d learned from Wikipedia, about ghosts.

Everyone wanted to hear about the Buddhist funeral. Everybody. My aunt clearly had played Telephone with that piece of news, telling everyone that I’d been to a Buddhist funeral. So first I had to explain that it wasn’t properly a funeral, and things got more confusing from there.

During all of that I was reminded, repeatedly, that there was food, and asked if I’d grabbed anything to eat, and there are drinks over there, and have you seen the food? Our family motto, if we had one: “There’s food!” I located the coffee, because at that point I was starting to fade, and Army Cousin and I spent a while happily eating the little brownies and boston-cream puffs and did you TRY this thing with strawberry and chocolate?

There’s food! It’s right here! GO EAT.

There was even funereal water. Who makes that, I wonder?

There was even funereal water. Who makes that, I wonder?

I got hugged repeatedly by everyone I knew, and was told that they loved me and were so happy to see me. That felt really good, and was also unexpected, because being the Mentally Ill Black Sheep means I didn’t get out to the non-death-related shindigs and didn’t hear much from anybody, and was not sure whether I particularly mattered. I’ve wondered for years whether that lack of communication is because people tend to shy away from The Crazy, or whether it was the general inability to do anything that made people stop reaching out. I’m still not sure. I didn’t ask; it didn’t seem the right time for it.

After more hugs and jokes and pictures and swapping email addresses and phone numbers and DID YOU EAT, people started to disperse. (Funny sidenote: I was right about the clothes. It was warm in there, so I shed my sweater and apologized for the fuchsia bra straps. My aunt said, “Do whatever makes you comfortable,” but then said she’d have to photograph me from the neck up, so I put it back on. Meanwhile someone else, I’ve no idea who, had a zebra-striped miniskirt.)

My aunt and my cousins asked me to stick around, so I did, and we chatted some more while everything was cleared away. I talked to the younger of the two about dogs; she’s got a lovely fawn and white Pit, and we went on a great tear about how it is so wrong the way those dogs are viewed, etc. I showed her a picture of Josie and she could not get over that ear.

The food was a problem; namely, that while the gathering was about as expected, none of them ate. Or, more accurately, none of them ate enough. PEOPLE, YOU WERE TOLD THERE WAS FOOD. I said I’d be happy to take some home, and before I knew it I had a buffet tray the size of a manhole cover filled with croissant sandwiches.

Go to a funeral, get sent home with leftovers. Hey, grab a bottle of soda too.

I dug my backpack out of my car and happily changed back into my regular clothes. We loaded everything into the cars, took more pictures, and then they left. I waited a bit longer, calling the vet back (they were on their lunch break) and getting the WHOA I HAVE A GPS NAVIGATOR set up so that I’d make my way back to I4 and not wind up in Lake Okeechobee.

Then I drove. A lot. The drive back was probably shorter than the drive to, but it didn’t feel like it. I had, at that point, only had two cups of coffee and a couple of brownies and chocolatey things. I was operating on four hours of sleep. I was going to crash hard at some point and I knew it.

I met someone interesting at the gas station.

I met someone interesting at the gas station.

Let me tell you: Polk discombobulates me so thoroughly that when I was finally on the ramp to I4 and the GPS was saying “Go left. Go left.” I still wound up heading east on the damn highway for a mile until the next exit before I could get turned around properly.

Driving back was better: I trusted the GPS to an extent, I was in no big hurry, and I was wearing jeans and sneakers again. But I knew the inevitable caffeine-chocolate-sugar-exhaustion collapse was coming. And I still had to get my dog.

I could feel myself relax once I was back in places where I knew what the highway exits were. No big surprise, after so much being lost, but it was still a mistake. Relaxing invites the tiredness.

It's good to come home after a busy day. Yes, I was driving; no, I was not distracted. I just fired the camera button a few times. This one worked. Shoot from the hip, or as it was, the dashboard.

It’s good to come home after a busy day. Yes, I was driving; no, I was not distracted. I just fired the camera button a few times. This one worked. Shoot from the hip, or as it was, the dashboard.

The highway led right to the road which led right to the vetshop, so I got there, texted Amber something about bless the mother of God and all her wacky nephews for I am home again, got out of the car, and headed for the bathroom just as quickly as I’d headed for the vet desk that morning.

“We’re really busy,” the guy manning the desk told me. “Might be a while.”

“Long as I’m not in the car I’m happy. I had to go to Winter Haven.”

“Is that near Ocala?”

“Felt like it.”

Once I finally got to talk to the vet, I was feeling the beginning of The Crash. The tests ruled out giardia, and the vet said likely it was Stupid Puppy Ate Thing She Shouldn’t Have, or perhaps an intolerance to new kibble, and would probably resolve itself in a day or two. But they had dewormers and antibiotics ready. We talked about the bland food — finally I had my answer, and I had been right all along, boiled chicken and white rice.

I said I’d like to see if it resolved on its own, with bland food and more of the old kibble, which they had little bags of. Then, if it didn’t, I’d come back and get medicine. He said that sounded great.

I am so used to vets who all but shove medicine at you and adopt the nuke-it-from-orbit medication strategy while assuming the pet owner knows jackshit. It was really nice to be taken seriously. Since my previous vet was leaving, I asked if this one could be my new usual vet. He seemed happy about that.

I finally collected Josie, who peed all over the floor in her excitement to see me again, and we headed home.

Later, while I was outside with my dog, I caught a lizard, because guess what, anxiety? I totally can handle shit like an adult at the vet, and go to a funeral in nice clothes, and drive around and get lost and get home okay, and anxiety, you can suck it.

Responsible Adult Catches Lizard: news at eleven.

Responsible Adult Catches Lizard: news at eleven.

lucky babushka

My grandfather, who was born in Abruka (a speck near Saaremaa) and naturalized during WWII, was a sailor, because apparently on the coast of Estonia there isn’t much else to do. When he became an American, he sailed with the Merchant Marines; my mother remembers going to Turkey and Israel, and spending lots of time in Venezuela.

I don’t have a complete list of all his ports of call, but we know he went to Japan, and to Hong Kong (which at the time was under UK control), and likely stopped in China proper at least once.

That must be where he got the ring. It’s gold, nice and solid, and has four characters on it, separated by raised diamond shapes.

Have you the wing?

Have you the wing?

My grandparents split well before I was born, once their daughters were grown. (My grandfather was a bit of a bastard, and saying that is an offense to bastards everywhere.) My grandmother never mentioned her ex-husband much, except mockingly, and I never saw this ring – her wedding ring – until after she died. It’s interesting: I never saw her wear it, we never discussed it, it is from a part of her life that ended well before I began. But it’s still hers, and she was still the pillar of stability in my world when I was small, and it is, therefore, damn near sacred.

On a whim, a few days ago, I photographed it and posted to a few places online, to ask what language those characters were in and what they meant. I had no idea if I’d even gotten them right side up, though it turns out I had.

The translation, in Chinese, is rather simple: good fortune, and may things go your way. A nice sentiment for a wedding ring, I suppose — certainly better than the badly thought-out “Uh, that means chair, not strength” Chinese tattoos that have become popular these days. (Although it would have been funny: I hereby wed thee with PINECONE DRAINPIPE CLOUD SHOE.)

All of this is fairly normal, except: the third character. Depending on how one reads it, it could be 女ロ, which is Japanese. The Chinese symbol is damn near identical to my Latin-text-reading self:  如.

The hilarious part is that, in Japanese, that particular character means “Russian girl/lady/woman.” And y’all know not to call an Estonian a Russian. We get… grouchy… about it.

I wish I could tell my grandmother this, because she would laugh hard enough to burst something. “HE CALLED ME A WHAT? YOU SEE WHY I DIVORCED HIM!”

It is now, and forever will be, Grandma’s Lucky Babushka Ring. Because it’s funnier that way.

some things just are

In my jewelry box, next to the silver and gems, is a little grey stone with a hole. I found it on the beach at Anna Maria when I was a kid, what seems like a lifetime ago, when my mother and I would drive down to stay with my grand-uncle at his winter house. Finding a rock on the beach is hardly unusual. But I remember it because he told me: a rock with a hole is good luck, you keep that. Somehow I did, all this time. It’s nothing remarkable, a smooth grey stone with one hole worn all the way through and several others pitted in the surface. But it was lucky. My uncle said so, and I loved him and believed the things he told me. Somehow I managed to keep from misplacing it, all of this time. I never asked why hole-stones were lucky. Some things just are. You don’t have to know why, as long as you know.

One of my grandmother’s books. She had very strong opinions about this sort of thing.

My maternal family, which is all I’ve got, is Estonian. Very Estonian. As Estonian as you can get after naturalizing in America. Depending on which grandparent you count it from, I’m either the second or third generation off the boat. I’m sure there are convoluted grandmother’s-second-cousin-by-marriage names for these relationships, but we’re big on simplicity, so all I knew was that there were a mess of awesome old people, Aunt Her and Uncle Him, with lilting accents and goofy senses of humor, who’d been Born There but Couldn’t Go Back. Superstition, sterling silver, and plenty of dessert. Kurat! There were cousins my own age, and aunts and uncles in my mother’s generation, but somehow I got along best with the old folks. I was shy and small and quiet, and they were gentle with me, drawing me out carefully until I’d let them see who I really was, and welcoming it when I did.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned things in any detail: the red revolution, the brief period of nationalism, the escape from Soviet occupation with little more than the clothes on their backs. I wish I knew the stories better; some were serious, some were funny, some were sad. My aunts and uncles told their stories with a mix of humor and sorrow in that peculiar way which I am learning is just an Estonian thing, this deep drive to find the humor in a situation and burst yourself at it, because it’s better to be laughing than crying. We elbow each other and giggle at funerals; we crack jokes in hospital rooms; we are a combination of wary and amused, because the two constants in life are that things go wrong, and things are funny. There’s about fifteen hundred years of history backing this: when your tribe gets conquered, invaded, overtaken, converted, subverted, silenced, and annexed by every hopped-up tsar or warlord to come down the pike, it learns how to maintain a sense of self. Don’t let the bastards get you down, the jokes remind us, and laugh it off when they try. Laugh at them behind their backs.

They sang themselves free from the Soviets, but I think the real Estonian anthem is a belly laugh.

Lately I have been reading about Estonian mythology, tradition, superstition; I wonder what’s survived all this way, from Baltic Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, from Neolithic settlements all the way to modern times. As it turns out, quite a bit.

My grandmother was superstitious: no shoes on the table, no open umbrellas in the house, no walking under a ladder. All of those are ordinary enough here, I suppose; if she found a good superstition she’d add it to the collection. Why not? Knock on wood, salt over the shoulder, and a “god willing” tacked onto the end of hopes and plans although she, like me, was about as religious as a doorstop. Why? Who knows. She just was.

I can’t remember her swearing in English more than once or twice, in moments of great distress, but she swore in Estonian almost constantly. Her one Estonian word, guttural, with the full accent she’d lost when she learned English at the age of five. Kurat! As a kid I tried to write it down and I think I came up with ‘Guddaght,’ which is about how I remember it sounding, with the rolled r. I asked her what it meant once, that word you always say, Grandma: she paused a moment then told me, dismissively, “It means” – quick glance away, what to tell the kid – “go run in the woods.” That was that. Don’t ask more about it. It’s just Grandma being funny. Some things just are: that’s another thing I learned.

She took that word’s meaning with her to the grave, but later one of my mob of old-country aunts, my grandmother’s cousin perhaps, finally explained it to me. Kurat means devil, in the most literal sense, although it serves double duty as an all-purpose profanity for any situation from disappointment to catastrophe. Google translates it as “fucking,” which is funny when “Big Devil Rock” becomes “Fucking Hard Thing.”

Kuradisaar, or Devil Island, is another story that aunt gave me, though the name she used was Devil’s Rock; it’s an island just off the Käsmu peninsula where stories say the Devil lost a fight, I think. Though if my family are a standard example it’s just as likely that the island got its name from everyone slipping off the rocks, skinning their knees and swearing, kurat, kurat, kurat! She would walk out into the bay at low tide, picking her way across the glacier-smoothed rocks like gigantic stepping stones, and go to the island. Then the tide came in, and either she was stuck there or she had to swim back. “And you didn’t want to do that in the winter time!” she’d say. Why did you go out to the rock in winter? “Well” – a shrug – “why not?” Because it’s there. It is. Some things just are.

I have a muddy estuary full of tarpon and dolphins and crabs, and while I’ve been in it often enough to be immune to Karenia brevis, I’ve never gone out and found myself trapped on an island where the Devil lost a fight. I have turned up plenty of stingrays though, which I’m sure they would have liked to hear about, laughing as they’d scold me: “You did what? Those can kill you! What is wrong with your mind?” Well, why not?

I asked her about the herring once: that was the other thing I never did figure out. I still don’t know, come to it. When the clock strikes twelve and the new year comes, the first thing you must do is eat a great gob of herring. Pickled in sour cream is what we always get. I asked my great-aunt, my grandmother’s cousin, why it was lucky. She fixed me with a look and said, “It just is!” Why is the sky blue? Why are there rocks in the ocean? Some things just are.

Normal is whatever you’re used to, I suppose. When I was younger and these magnificent lunatics were all alive, I took it for granted. I didn’t know there was anything special about it. But I feel the loss, and I miss them so much, the accents and the stories, the table manners (pizza with a fork, really?), silver and ships and herring.

Nostalgia has got to be another genetic trait.

It makes perfect sense that my grand-uncle had his winter home on Anna Maria Island. Boats were as necessary to his life as cameras are to mine; he’d been a sailor in Estonia, made his way to the US aboard ship, then worked in the Merchant Marines after getting his citizenship. After that he owned a small marina, and when it came time to retire he picked a house on a small wild barrier island (it was at the time, at least) with a canal in the back yard, and a dock on that, and of course, a little motorboat moored to it.

The thing I remember the best is how we’d go fishing in the morning for what we ate at dinner. We set out when the sun was still coming up, motor out around the island into the gulf, then cut the engines and drift. We’d spend the mornings out there, listening to the tall tales he’d spin and waiting for the fish — which were always called trout, I’m not sure why — to bite. There was a wooden scaling post on the little dock, and he’d trim the fish right there with an old kitchen knife before bringing them indoors. I had two jobs: fetch the live shrimp from the bucket so he could bait the hooks, and afterwards, throw the discarded heads and tails to a blue heron that learned it would get treats if it hung around begging.

Yesterday I learned that there’s a wealth of sacred stones in Estonia, thousands of years old. They are glacial boulders with little holes or cups in the surface. Some may have been natural. Some were carved to depict constellations. They were offering stones: you would leave something of value in the hole, for a wish, or for luck, or for health. I don’t know if my uncle knew about that, the details, the historical specifics; he did know a stone with a hole in it was good luck, a talisman to carry in your pocket or put in a drawer. I don’t know how a Neolithic tradition survived long enough to become a modern luck-charm, but it has. Some things just happen.

That amazes me.

luck-stone

All of those people are gone now, and I miss them so much. It’s strange and lonely. I crave the accents and the stories and the food and the laughter. But they gave me valuable things, the herring and the stones. Kurat! Laugh off a calamity. Some things just are. By learning about that place, about the things that made them who they were, they don’t seem quite as far away.

Especially the jokes — remind me to tell you the one about the potholders, sometime.

fake-cough and watch them startle

Like most any other internet lemming these days, I have myself a facebook account. Mostly I use it to share silly images or videos, and keep in touch with (and/or track of) the bucketload of acquaintances I made down at Occupy.

The problem, of course, is that when you’re part of the Lefty Fringe, you wind up meeting with people who, while otherwise quite ordinary (for what passes for ordinary amongst the Lefty Fringers, anyhow) also go on about some really weird stuff.

Joke: How do you know if someone is a vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll fucking tell you.

Most of this I do not mind. It gets the raised eyebrow of WTF and then I scroll by. It’s entertaining, the same way looking at a thunderstorm and thinking “Oh, so that’s where they came up with that particular myth” is — or the way reading up on conspiracy theories is. It’s like having my very own X-Files, and I never keep getting reruns of that grotesque goddamn man-fluke episode. Everybody’s got their superstitions. Thing is, most of us will damn well keep ’em to ourselves and not write huge [TOXINS] internet screeds about [CHEMTRAILS] the secret messages in [WAKE UP SHEEPLE] the Emergency Broadcast System if you [FRINGE POLITICAL PARTY] use indigenous Incan morse code.

It’s okay, more or less. You got your thing, whatever. Long as you ain’t hurtin’ anybody else I will just be amused and then move on. That’s the key part: as long as you aren’t hurting anybody.

Which is why the anti-vaxers make me desperately wish for a widespread outbreak of measles.

I got into it with one of them today. I know better, I really do, I just could not help it. Trying to talk sense into these anti-vax prophets (I use that word deliberately) is about as effective as scolding a cockroach. The roach does not give a damn and you kind of look like an idiot for wasting your time. And yet — I get into it anyway.

I’m perhaps more aware of this than average folks, as several of my near and dear are either immunocompromised or at-risk in one way or another. Let me put it to you this way: a friend of mine travels the world researching pathogens. She is very very good at what she does, and way smarter than all of us. She told me that they make yearly flu-vax shortlist exceptions for people like me who can easily fight off a flu but could carry it to someone it could really damage. “You’re exactly the people we want to see coming in for vaccines,” is basically how she put it. But that isn’t enough, for me to get my yearly jab, because all these people who are important to me have to go out and be civilized around the morons who think a vaccine contains more mercury than a tin of tuna.

The great tragedy of my life: I can’t protect everybody from everything. Call me Garp.

When I see the garbage about vaccines linked to X or Y or Z, I can’t help it. I just see red. What I want to say is: “You are putting the people I love at risk. Get skullfucked by a syphillitic donkey.” But that, for some reason, is considered an over-the-top reaction to people acting like morons about highly contagious and deadly diseases.

Instead I link them to this post called ‘Why We Immunize,’ about childhood diseases and what they do. To date I haven’t gotten a single bit of backtalk. Perhaps it’s all the copied gravestone inscriptions. Teeny tiny coffins. How’d House put it? They come in so many colors; that’s good business. Frog green, firetruck red.

Go back to that link, now. Go read it all, especially the personal stories sprinkled in through the information and gathered fantastically in the comments. Smallpox. Pertussis. Measles. Polio — and that last one fascinates me most of all, because as part of the early-eighties cohort, I am lucky enough to have absolutely no idea what it’s like to live with that threat.

Again, I wish my grandmother was still around. I wish that at least on a daily basis, if not more, and for so many different reasons. Today the reason is that I want to know what it was like growing up when she did, in the twenties and early thirties, and then having kids who were bang in the danger zone when the biggest polio outbreaks swept the country in the late forties and early fifties. I do remember she had a vaccination scar on her upper arm – I think the right arm? – which she didn’t like to show. It must have been for smallpox. It was a round whitish scar, about the size of a pencil eraser. As a kid I was both fascinated (hey cool, scars!) and frightened (oh god, needles!) by it. She’d just laugh it off, because that little scar beat the alternative.

(I find, more and more, that I am turning into her — and that I do not mind it one bit.)

It boggles my mind to think about how many of the things I did were known vectors for polio: puddlehopping, swimming in pools or the beach, hell, even being out in public. The best way for oral-fecal bacteria to travel is through water. I’m imagining being a kid and weighing the cost of a potentially deadly disease versus an afternoon in a sprinkler. Or being an adult and trying to weigh that cost. I can’t wrap my head around it. I’ve been reading on this stuff all day, and I keep wanting to know more, the same way I always want to know about things nobody bothered to tell me about.

I saw a quote somewhere, recently, that theorizes any historical fiction set a hundred or more years ago is practically indistinguishable from science fiction, since technology and social organizations are so different. That is very true. Especially in this case: this polio stuff — Suzie, put your chin on your chest NOW! — sounds like something out of a Ray Bradbury book, with the invasive alien disease in the otherwise idyllic 1950s landscape. The day it didn’t rain, nobody came outside because the puddles could be toxic.

The only remotely similar experience I had was chicken pox – I’m old enough to remember pox parties, where everyone had to go hang out with the kid who got it, because there wasn’t a vaccine and it was best to get done with the damn disease as soon as possible. I had it for a week, raised maybe three spots, and spent my time bouncing around the apartment like a deranged Boston Terrier. My mother, somehow, also contracted it (then in her late thirties) and spent a week huddling in a dark room, miserable as all hell. But now there’s a vaccine for that, and that’s fucking fantastic.

The thing I hear the most — or, perhaps, the one that infuriates me the most — is this: “It’s extinct in the wild. The disease is dead.” No, it’s not. Do just a little bit of research: some are zoonotic, some are still endemic in other parts of the world, some are naturally occurring, and unless we keep inoculating and inoculating until we finally get every last person immunized, they never will be extinct.

Here’s what I wound up saying to that one idiot, and what I would happily like to say to all the rest of them, providing there are no syphillitic donkeys nearby….

“Check out a graveyard from the 19th century and feast your eyes on all those headstones for babies and children. Have ten kids; watch four live to adulthood, at least one likely disabled after surviving something that killed the other six. Shoot the dog when it gets rabies, die of suffocation and/or starvation because of tetanus, watch children drown in their own snot. Sounds like a blast, huh?”

I’ll stay over here in the 21st century, thanks. Y’all go be stupid somewhere way the hell away from me, and everyone I love, and everyone they love, and so forth. Which turns out to be everyone. Stay away from them all, except the skullfucking donkeys.