Taking a Vacation from My Vacation

cruiseship stamp fotolia

The past week was supposed to bring rest and rejuvenation, but, you know, best laid plans. The goal for today, therefore, is as simple as it is ambitious: shake off the past week, and return to business as usual. And so, I blog. This post won’t be especially elegant, nor will it prove especially inspiring. Honestly, this post isn’t for you. It’s for me.

Last week, I flew to South Florida to meet up with my mother and brother, with whom I was taking a four-day-long cruise to Mexico. This was our Christmas present, and—in my case—an early Spring Break. Seeing my family is always wonderful, and we were very excited for our vacation, but we also had a lot on our minds. There were many shoes in the air, so to speak, and waiting for them to drop cast something of a pall on the skies over the Liberty of the Seas.

Those shoes did indeed drop. And how.

On day three of the cruise—the day we docked in Cozumel—we came home from a wonderful day of sun, shopping, and dolphin encounters, only to find out that my paternal grandmother had died. She was ninety-seven, and had entered hospice earlier that week, so we were all prepared—indeed, anxious—for her passing. But, of course, being on a ship at the time of her death, we had almost no internet access, and no cell phone service. We couldn’t plan her memorial, we couldn’t notify relatives… we couldn’t do much of anything.

My Nana and I on my birthday, three years ago. She'd been in frighteningly good health--like, travelling cross-country alone and tap-dancing good health--until a fall at age 94. This picture was taken shortly after that fall, when my mother, my brother and I flew to Florida to surprise her at the rehab center.

My Nana and I on my birthday, three years ago. She’d been in frighteningly good health–like, travelling cross-country alone and tap-dancing good health–until a fall at age 94. This picture was taken shortly after that fall, when my mother, my brother and I flew to Florida to surprise her at the rehab center.

To be clear: I am glad my grandmother is gone. The past three years of her life have been challenging; this past year, well, it’s been simply awful. Her death is a blessing and a relief. While I’m not grieving my grandmother, it was difficult to be so utterly disconnected from the reality of her passing. So we sat there, in the casino, playing the slots and sipping on virgin piña coladas, because what the hell else were we going to do? It was a strange feeling, to put it mildly.

Our cruise ended yesterday. We disembarked in the morning and drove three hours back to our home, making calls to the nursing home, the hospice facility, etc. on the way. Things were getting back to normal. We picked up three ecstatic dogs—and one very grumpy cat—from the kennel. And then, when we got home, all hell broke loose.

Sadie was bleeding.

We used to always joke that Sadie acted more like a reindeer than a dog. In 2012, we made it official with a pair of ears. We thought it would freak her out, but she took to them immediately.

We used to always joke that Sadie acted more like a reindeer than a dog. In 2012, we made it official with a pair of ears. We thought it would freak her out, but she took to them immediately.

Sadie had cancer that, while not impacting her appetite or her sunny disposition, had badly disfigured her. She had a tumor (at least) the size of a softball on her leg, and another baseball-sized tumor on her stomach. We all considered it a miracle that she’d survived to celebrate Christmas with us again; it seemed like the only one who wasn’t holding their breath was Sadie. It’s a strange thing to see a dog who looks so sick dancing for her dinner, wiggling her stump, and running to the sliding-glass door to bark at passersby. We were always worried that we might let her go too long, that we’d miss a warning sign, that she’d be in pain and we’d inadvertently allow that pain to continue. We took her to the vet over and over again, only to hear the same thing over and over again: not yet.

When my mother and brother dropped her off last week, the tumor on her leg was oozing slightly, but all seemed well. She was still a happy dog. She was a happy dog when we picked her up. But by the time we got home with her yesterday, all was definitely not well. In the span of about thirty minutes, everything changed.

When she got out of the car, blood started spurting out of her tumor. Our garage was covered in droplets of blood. We looked at her leg, and realized the skin had finally ripped open. We tried to bandage her, but the shape of the tumor being what it was, the bandage came off within minutes. There was nothing we could do. Sadie didn’t seem terribly distressed by her condition, but we knew that it would only get worse. And so, within twenty minutes of arriving home with our menagerie, my mother and I packed Sadie into the car and returned to the vet. As my mom put it to me, it felt like we were playing a dirty trick on her, taking her back like that. Timing’s a bitch.

When we arrived at the vet’s office, we were met by a staff that seemed almost as devastated as we were. As one nurse put it to us “We knew this day was coming, but we’d all hoped she had a little while longer, because she’s such a special dog.” Dogs are tremendously empathetic, so it’s possible she was responding to the emotions flooding the room, but Sadie’s attitude gradually changed. Her usual vet-visit jitters seemed to melt away, replaced by resignation. After a lot of kisses and tears, Sadie laid herself down in-between my mother and I, and quietly, peacefully, passed away.

Sadie and her sister, Maya. We rescued them, and when we realized that adopting them out would mean splitting them up, we decided to keep them. Maya passed away a couple years ago. I can only imagine the fun they're having together right now.

Sadie and her sister, Maya. We rescued them back in 2004. When we realized that adopting them out would mean splitting them up, we decided to keep them. Maya passed away a couple years ago. I can only imagine the fun the girls are having together right now.

To summarize: I took a four day long vacation. In that time, I lost both my grandmother and my dog.

I would say that I was still numb, but I’m not numb at all. I wish I was numb. If I could get right back on that ship and sail away from this situation, I would. As every co-worker you’ve ever had has said at least once: I need a vacation from my vacation. The idea of getting back to my academic work—to steeping myself in other people’s loss—seems impossible. And yet, I desperately need to get back to my routine.

I shouldn’t feel bad about my lack of grief at my Nana’s passing, but—now that Sadie’s gone—I do feel bad about it. I’m struggling with the knowledge that I’ve cried, repeatedly, over Sadie, and not once for my grandmother. It actually makes a lot of sense that I feel that way. Sadie was happy and dancing on the day she died; if it weren’t for the giant bleeding tumor on her leg, she’d have had at least a few happy months ahead of her. My grandmother, on the other hand, was gone months before she died.

Feeling guilty about grief is as stupid as it is inevitable (in my case, anyway). The only way to make those feelings fade is to acknowledge them… to let them stretch out a little, announce themselves, and enjoy their moment.

That’s why I wrote this post. It’s for me, not for you. The guilt and sorrow I’m carrying right now is heavy, so I’m offloading it onto the Internet. Those feelings can run free all over my blog, but their time in my head has come to an end.

 

 “The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

Nude Models, Pot Brownies, and Frankenfoot: A Tribute to My Grandmother

I’m back in Florida with my family, decompressing after an incredibly productive and fun—but exceedingly stressful—week of archival work. Unlike previous trips, I am actually excited to keep researching. The one major impediment to continuing research is my present location, which is approximately 3,000 miles away from both my home and the majority of my archives. Thing is, I’m really happy here, and reluctant to leave. I’ve found that happy medium between work and family, and am loathe to give it up. That feeling is even stronger today, because today would have been my grandmother’s eighty first birthday.

The last photo I have of myself and Granny.

The last photo I have of myself and my grandmother.

My grandmother—I always called her “Granny,” which drove my mother up a wall—died seven years ago. She died in her sleep, the death she’d always wanted, at the age of 73. I was in college 800 miles away, attending Bryn Mawr. It was a matter of personal pride for her, because, despite growing up mere miles from the campus, she always told me she never would have gotten in, on account of being an Irish Catholic.

By the time she passed away she’d been living with my family for over a decade, and was equal parts my third parent and my responsibility. I drove her to her doctor’s appointments, she taught me how to knit. I brought her food when her foot got run over by a Buick (that actually happened… she broke six bones and developed a serious case of “Frankenfoot” as a result), and she laid in bed calmly agreeing with me whenever I needed to rant about something parent or high school related. I took her to the craft store, and she did my laundry. She told me I would “start an argument with a brick wall,” and I mocked her relentlessly. She was a fixture in my life, and—as is the case with most fixtures—I took her for granted. And then suddenly she was gone, and for the first time in my life I found myself besieged by grief.

I was besieged, but my grandmother had long ago been broken. Granny moved in with us shortly after the death of one of her three daughters, and was never the same. By that time she was also dealing with the early stages of dementia and other medical problems that limited her in ways I am only now able to understand. She had an incredibly difficult life, and given my age, I couldn’t really appreciate the gravity of her physical and psychological challenges.

In fairness—both to myself and to my grandmother’s memory—she was also totally cuckoo bananas. She was quite possibly the world’s worst driver: from a hit and run at the public library to the time she ran into our local Wachovia, every trip with her was a hair-raising adventure. She was a truly heinous cook who gave herself E. coli at least once. She got jelly on the newspaper every single morning. She had a cat named “Cooter.” She routinely told my brother and I to “bugger off, dear,” and taught me turns of phrase that to this day make me sound like I come from another era. I always described her to my friends as the eccentric old lady who lived in my basement, and to this day I stand by that description. What I didn’t fully appreciate then, and wish I could tell her now, is that she was so much more than that.

My grandmother being nutty as she was wont to do.

My grandmother being nutty, as she was wont to do.

My grandmother was basically the coolest person ever. This is a blog post, and Granny deserves a book, so to those of you who knew her, please excuse my brevity. For the rest of you, strap in. I’m about to list all the reasons that my granny was cooler than your granny:

  • Both of my grandmother’s parents were artists, and she used to talk to me about coming home from school—in the 1930’s and 1940’s—to nude models posing in the living room. Growing up with a bunch of artists, she never tried to compete in that arena, but as she got older she started to indulge her creative side. By the time she lived with me, she was remarkably crafty. Knitting, needlepoint, drawing, painting… you name it, she probably did it, and made sure to expose me to it. She made beautiful things, and by the end of her life was especially into quilting; I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention that she occasionally sewed pieces of fabric to her pants legs. Nobody’s perfect.
  • Granny dedicated herself to her studies and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in English. She remains one of the most well-read people I’ve ever met, the type who’d re-read War and Peace over the course of two or three days, just because. She studied Elizabethan England and the Civil War in her free time, and introduced me to many of the best books I’ve ever read.
  • While in college, my Granny—an Irish Catholic girl from a suburb of Philadelphia—fell in love with an Indian man. My great grandparents told her they would never approve of a mixed marriage, but that they wouldn’t actively prevent the wedding from happening if she went to India and lived with his family for several months… their logic being that she’d never be able to stand living in such a dirty and barbarous country. Long story short, my grandfather had to drag her back to the United States, as she would have gladly spent the rest of her life in India if given the choice. She married my (brown) grandfather in Pennsylvania in the 1950’s, and she did it in a sari. Because she was a total badass.
    My grandmother and grandfather posing for a highly improbable wedding photo.

    My grandmother and grandfather posing for a highly improbable wedding photo.

    My granny, getting married her way.

    My granny, getting married her way.

  • Approximately a decade later, Granny ran off to Mexico to divorce my grandfather. She returned to the US a newly single woman determined to raise her three small (and half brown) children on her own. Imagine for a moment the kind of courage it would have taken to become a single mother of three biracial children in the early 1960’s. Granny had some serious ovaries.

    My grandmother and grandfather with the first of their three daughters.

    My grandmother and grandfather with the first of their three daughters.

  • During the “Mad Men” era, my grandmother started working in corporate/commercial real estate. She bought properties that companies used as tax shelters, which… doesn’t happen anymore. She was very good at her job, but as is so often the case, found herself making a lot of money for other people. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of a very complex industry, and managed to stay alive through decades of swimming with the sharks. Just as she rose to the top of the totem pole, tax shelters were eliminated and the industry in which she made her name disappeared.
  • In the days when she did have cash, my grandmother made good use of it. She and her best friend—also a successful, single business woman—took trips to faraway places like China, unaccompanied by men. Because why not? She was utterly unafraid of the unknown, because she’d kicked the unknown’s ass so many times already.
  • When my aunt became ill with a very rare disease, my grandmother became her caretaker. My aunt—who will have a blog post of her own someday soon, as she was a pretty cool lady too—had a fierce advocate in my grandmother. When my aunt was in chemotherapy so bad that it was almost worse than the disease she was battling, my grandmother did what it took to get her hands on some marijuana. She’d bake up pot brownies, and bring them to the hospital. Because she was amazing.
Granny with one of my cousins. Which one, I haven't the foggiest.

Granny with one of my cousins. Which one, I haven’t the foggiest.

So yeah, basically, Granny was the world’s coolest grandmother. She only spent seventy three years in this life, but what a life she had. Hell, she even died the way she wanted to… if that isn’t a mic drop I don’t know what is. The last conversation we had was about a summer internship I’d received; she told me she was proud of me. I’m proud of her too, and I really hope she knows it. Happy Birthday Granny.

 

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

What I’m Learning From A Giant Stack of Obituaries

This week of archival work has left me with a lot to process, both intellectually and emotionally. It’s going to take a long time to sort through everything that I found, both in the archives and within myself. Especially after reading other people’s diaries all day long, I feel a strong urge to follow in their footsteps, so if you aren’t into navel-gazing, you may want to skip this entry. Actually, just skip the whole blog.

One of the two lions that greet you at the New York Public Library. Click image to see the website the image came from.

One of the two lions that greet you at the New York Public Library. Click image to see the website the image came from.

As I mentioned in a previous post, you never know what you’re going to find when you do archival work. I went to the NYPL specifically looking for information about ACT UP’s political funerals, and I found surprisingly little on them. What I didn’t expect to find—or, more accurately, didn’t expect to spend much time or energy on—was obituaries, the vast majority of which were not published in newspapers.

Turns out, I’m bringing home hundreds of them. They don’t fit neatly into my dissertation as originally conceived, so I suspect they are going to become the foundation of a separate journal article. At least, that’s how I’m choosing to rationalize spending a full day (and a lot of my own money) printing obituaries I may never use.

I’m increasingly unconvinced of, and borderline hostile to, the idea that there is a boundary between the personal and the professional, and this trip—these obituaries—added a new dimension to my argument. Yes, these are incredible sources, and I think they’ve been underused. They are fascinating to me, and I think my work will benefit from analyzing them, but the fact is, I didn’t need to print every obituary in the archive. Examples would have been sufficient, but no, I just had to print them all.

Have a giant stack of obituaries. I promise this will be the most boring picture I ever post.

Have a giant stack of obituaries. I promise this will be the most boring picture I ever post.

I could marshal up an argument that I need all the available evidence blah blah blah, but the fact is, there’s just something about these obituaries. They’re pieces of paper printed from microfilm, and the images are all far too blurry to use in an article, but they radiate pain and grief in a way that’s hard to describe. You have to hold them in your hands yourself. The truth is, I printed every obituary because I didn’t want to leave anyone behind.

There’s nothing I can do for the men and women whose obituaries I’m flying home with—I have no illusions that my work will bring them back to life, or change the way we remember (or, in far too many cases, don’t remember) them. I’m completely aware that I only have access to the obits somebody cared enough to preserve, that there are thousands upon thousands of folks who died of AIDS during the same time period, in the exact same city, that didn’t get memorialized on microfilm. I know I’m nobody’s hero, and I like to think that I’m not in the business of writing recovery narratives (think “golden moment” history). Still. It’s about respect.

Historians have feelings, and this week has been a somber one for me. That’s a good thing. I study a horrendous moment in American history, and I chose perhaps the most depressing and gruesome aspect of that moment (the political uses of the dying and dead PWA body). Sometimes I worry that I must be seven different kinds of crazy to even be interested in such a morbid topic, and I frequently worry that there’s something borderline inhumane about being so fascinated by the topic. Trips like this one are important for me, because they remind me that I do in fact find this subject matter deeply upsetting.

I didn’t want to leave anyone behind.

Vito Russo, about whom an entire post is coming very soon. Born July 11, 1946, died November 7, 1990. His is one of the many faces I can't get out of my head. Click image to see the website this image came from.

Vito Russo, about whom an entire post is coming very soon. Born July 11, 1946, died November 7, 1990. His is one of the many faces I can’t get out of my head. Click image to see the website this image came from.

That’s part of the reason I reject the personal/professional binary. Certainly there are those out there who claim to be “objective,” who pride themselves on their knack for dispassionate narratives, but theirs are never the books I enjoy reading. I want to read books by historians who care deeply about their subject, who respond viscerally to their sources, who are motivated by something greater than mere curiosity. You don’t need an extended autobiographical forward to know when somebody’s truly dedicated to their topic. That kind of passion leaps off the page. I want my words to leap off the page too, even though I know it’s going to make my academic AND personal life much more complicated. Making my word leap off the page means confronting death in a way I never anticipated, in a way that is equal parts gloomy and terrifying.

This wasn’t the plan going into graduate school.

So I’m bizarrely thrilled by my expensive collection of obituaries, because it is a tangible reminder that analytical distance is a choice I can make, not a facet of my personality. I’m leaving New York ecstatic about being sad, because it means that I have the heart to write this story. If I wasn’t feeling this way, I suspect it’d mean I was evil, a robot… or both.

I may still be an evil robot, but if I am, I’m an evil robot that’s been programmed to never leave anybody behind.

The Six Million Dollar Scholar Makes Her Broadway Debut, Part One: “The Book of Mormon”

Hello, my name is The Six Million Dollar Scholar, and I would like to share with you this most amazing playbill.

Hello, my name is The Six Million Dollar Scholar, and I would like to share with you this most amazing playbill.

That title is the closest I’ll ever get to appearing on Broadway, so humor me. I’ve been coming to New York City for years and years, but somehow I’ve never seen a show. I’ve seen Broadway shows in North Carolina and Philadelphia, but had always heard that it’s just not the same as seeing them on the Great White Way. My mother—living saint that she is—decided that it’s time we did something about it.

On Tuesday, my first full day in the city—I spent approximately three hours collecting obituaries. It was, as one might expect, a total bummer. As much as I love studying HIV/AIDS, it does take a toll. It really did help knowing that I wasn’t going to just go back to my hotel and brood. No, I was going to spend the night laughing my ass off at “The Book of Mormon.”

I made a choice not to do my homework in preparation for this show. The premise of the show makes me uncomfortable, but I’d heard it was the funniest show on Broadway, and it’s passed the sniff test of several critical thinkers that I have the privilege of calling my friends. I wanted to see how the show hit me, and there’s really only one way to make that happen.

So, the following is my personal opinion of and meditation on the show. It’s been twenty four hours. There’s nothing I can possibly say about the show that’s more profound than what’s already been written by other people. Still.

Nic Rouleau and Ben Platt, the two HUGELY talented stars of "The Book of Mormon." Most of the pictures on the net are of the original cast, but I can't imagine anyone being better than these two were.

Nic Rouleau and Ben Platt, the two HUGELY talented stars of “The Book of Mormon.” Most of the pictures on the net are of the original cast, but I can’t imagine anyone being better than these two were.

Let’s get one thing out of the way now: this show is really beautifully written and performed. I am in awe of the men and women I saw on that stage, and have nothing but respect for each and every one of them. Their art needs to be considered a thing in itself, and there is no need for meditation there. This is hands-down one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and if I had the time, money, and social graces to take every member of the cast out to lunch, I totally would. They put on one a hell of a show.

“The Book of Mormon” is also a show that I can 100% understand my Mormon friends despising. That having been said, the structure of the show is such that any religion that promotes proselytizing could fit squarely in its crosshairs. Mormonism drew the short straw, but the abuse it takes is not nearly as heinous as I’d anticipated. The play mocks details of the faith, but ultimately looks beyond them to highlight all that is good about having faith. It’s a show that, in a hilariously roundabout way, demonstrates that anything is possible when you tap into a higher power, even if that higher power is a hobbit. It does, however, accomplish that at the expense of a major religion, and I appreciate that many a Mormon would find this play hurtful.

My other major concern going into the show was the fact that two white guys sat down and wrote a musical set in Uganda. I was expecting a lot of cheap-shot racial humor, and to a certain extent I got it. The African characters in this play are a bit two dimensional, and a huge portion of the plot is dependent upon their naiveté and lemming-like willingness to adopt (a creatively edited version of) Mormonism. However, I came away from the show feeling okay about the way people of color are represented, because—no spoilers—the writing is designed to make the audience “realize” the complexity of the African characters right alongside our two white protagonists. This enables a critique of neoliberal racism and global capitalism that might not otherwise translate to a broad audience.

All of this is to say that I agree with Sayantani DasGupta, who wrote in “The Feminist Wire” that “The Book of Mormon,” for being outrageous and frequently offensive, is doing important—and brilliantly subtle—cultural work. She writes that:

Ultimately, the subversive strength of the play is this: it is a powerful, and (if ticket sales are anything to go by) effective example of white people talking to white people about anti-racist social justice. By this I don’t mean the musical pulls any punches, or talks about anti-racism in a way that ‘doesn’t offend’ white people. Rather, I believe that it engages in a sort of neo-liberal self-critique that can only come from a position of ‘insider.’

The risk with a musical like this, of course, is that not every audience member is going to be able to see—for example—that the discussion of cliterodectomy is brilliantly executed. DasGupta mentions this too: in the midst of cheap laughs, we see an outright refusal to refer to the practice as “mutilation,” African men advocating for women’s sexual autonomy, and a strong challenge to the East/West universalist/particularist binaries of 21st century feminist thought. That said, the average audience member is just going to be laughing because… you know… clitoris. But hasn’t that always been true about Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s comedy? (Side note: if you haven’t seen 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park, get thee to thy Netflix. It’s mind-blowing.)

The_Book_of_Mormon_posterLike South Park, I suspect that “The Book of Mormon” has and will to continue to fly over the heads of many people, and to a certain extent I can understand the point of view that that risk associated with this brand of humor outweighs its rewards. But I believe in taking risks, and I believe that with every show “The Book of Mormon” is engaging at least a few privileged young people who love volunteer tourism, don’t believe ours is an imperialist country, and quiver at the thought of “anti-racist social justice.” These folks might not realize they’re laughing at themselves, but they are. This show may only open their minds for a couple of hours, but that’s something.

Or maybe I’m full of it. I don’t know. Fact is, I love and support musical theater, and I would have an exceedingly hard time tearing down a show that’s so expertly constructed and performed. It’s also hard to dump on a play that made me laugh out loud about AIDS after a day spent reading obituaries. Maybe I’m rationalizing, but I honestly don’t think so.

So yes, “The Book of Mormon” is definitely not for the easily offended, and only for the most lighthearted of LDS folks (like, maybe 1% of you), but it is a wonderful show. You should chop off an arm and a leg (it’s that expensive) and go see it, if only to jump onto my comments page and tell me how wrong I am, and how much you miss the aforementioned limbs.

 

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.