"The disturbing present can always be avoided by finding the right place to live in the past, or simply declaring that past dead."
-- David Blight, "Why the Underground Railroad? And Why Now? A Long View," in Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory (Smithsonian Books, 2004).
Saturday, October 21, 2006
Monday, October 09, 2006
Families develop their own languages that no one else understands. This language will sound quite a lot like any usually language, such as English, but will be filled with terms and expressions that only those within the family may truly understand. The terms may be something small and easily translated. For instance, most people can understand that “binky,” or “nookie” (no, not that kind of “nookie”) mean “pacifier,” or that “mah-maw” or “me-maw” mean “grandmother.” Others are deeper and more nuanced, created in a particular time and place understood only by the family involved. They are an idiom of intimacy.
My family, growing up, had such words. Many of these were invented by my youngest brother as he was learning to speak. One was “meefus.” This appeared on a vacation trip to Arkansas and was loosely tied to the town of Murfreesboro. At the same time, the word ended up meaning, “I fuss quite a bit,” which my brother did, as well as “I am first always,” which he tended to insist upon. The word, thus, became his nickname, shortened to “Meef.” The shortened version itself took on its own meanings as he grew, coming to mean “he with the meaty hands” and “he of the beefy build.”
This same brother also invented the term “pissoner.” “Pissoner” first entered the family lexicon when my brothers were supposed to be cleaning their collective room, and resulted from a conflation of the mispronunciation of “supervisor” and “president”. During the cleaning of the room, the younger brother put a chair on the bed and sat on it. The older one told him to get his ass down and help him pick up the damn room (profanity was also an early part of our family’s lexicon). The younger one said, “I am the pissoner.”
The adults in the house thought the word raucously hilarious. My brother seemed to understand supervising as sitting around and doing nothing. He seemed to have mixed this in with a concept of the presidency in 1977 that was prevalent in our household. Then, he pronounced the word as “piss on her.” To my hardworking parents in lower-level jobs, this was truth from the mouths of babes.
These words bind us together as a family. Using them now brings us back to an early period in our lives when we all lived under the same roof, and we all were the most important people in one another’s lives. We still use them, and others, as reminders of our connection to one another, even as we form connections outside of this unit.
My brothers have now formed their own family units, each married and with a child. I don’t know the languages that they have or that they are forming. My parents continue the language that they have had since before they had children. I have never had the desire to marry and have my own children. That sort of life did not appeal to me at all. At the same time, I have had a strong desire to form bonds with people that will generate this sort of language.
In the late 1990s, I had a roommate, and we had common, close friends, all of whom shared the experience of the same graduate program. We had “frolicking” and “meat on a stick.” We had “bite me” and “soooo tasty.” We had “the Brown-Nosed Reindeer” and “the Grumpy Thai Guy.” That group invented a language that drew us closer together, and that we still reference when we meet. When we use those terms, they immediately bond us with the shared experience, and even sentimentality for days that were not particularly great. The language expresses the moments of that time that were lovely, and companionable. The language reminds us that we were together.
Right now I have one person with whom I have created a language. I won’t detail our vocabulary because, on the surface and without translation, the words seem juvenile. Like all of the other words and expressions that I have detailed here, these words sound silly to those not fluent in their intimacy. In fact, the language would seem nauseating, like all other sorts of “baby talk” or cutesy interactions between romantic couples. Yet, that “baby talk” is what bonds the couple. The words act like caresses, like kisses.
I haven’t had many romantic relationships in my life that involved a created language. Actually, I have had none until now. In fact, I haven’t had many relationships in my life that involved a created language in general for many years, now.
This person is about to leave my life, or at least the nature of our relationship is about to change because I am about to move to another part of the country, and he cannot follow. This was the deal from the beginning, two years ago, so the prospect is no shock. That doesn’t diminish the grief. I don’t know if our friendship will ultimately survive. I don’t know if our language will survive.
For two years, our language has made me feel “safe” when everything else in my life was uncertain. The looming absence of this language, of him, makes me lonely; the looming absence makes leaving difficult and dampens some of my joy at my improving prospects. If there is any proof that I have loved this person deeper than any other, this is it. I was close enough, and comfortable enough with him to create this sort of bond, and to speak in intimacies. For two years, he has been my family here.
I, in fact, have no language for missing him.
My current place of employment proffered no counter offers, or even a perfunctory "we will be sorry to see you go." In fact, I was told that if I "intended to continue working here" I should do A, B, and C. A, B, and C, incidentally, had never been mentioned before.
I’ve been learning that this is not uncommon, not just for my place of employment, which has been losing employees like rats from a sinking ship, but in general. If an employee is as dissatisfied with her position as I am, then the feeling from her colleagues is probably mutual. I cannot imagine that this is not the case here.
At first, my boss assumed that my new job was merely the same as my current job, just in another, less expensive locale, and for a slightly higher salary. When I told him the actual position, the look on his face was one of genuine shock. After all, I was jumping from an entry-level position in an archive to an upper-level editorial position at a major research project. To me, it is just a return to the career path I was on before this little detour into archival work. To him, it was a gigantic leap beyond anyone’s expectations for me. I think I was actually a tad surprised at the realization that the people in this place really did underestimate me that much.
Of course, I shouldn't have been too surprised. Again, if an employee is not happy at her job, the feeling is probably mutual. I’ve tried to keep my head down, and not cause trouble; but a friend of mine, The Most Eligible Bachelor in Lafayette (MEBL), says that tactic can backfire, especially if you are new. You become the Other, and people will vilify the Other. People here have, in fact, told me that vilification of outsiders is their default attitude. Actually, now that I think about it, the people who have told me that are themselves "from away." They have just lived here long enough to have earned a permanent resident status.
I haven't been much better, myself. Even when I am not speaking, none of my thoughts go unexpressed. For the past two and a half years, I have noted what I call the “PhD attitude” in myself. Others would call it “snobbery,” or say “she thinks she’s better than us.” Either way, you could not say that I have concealed that attitude here.
For ten months, I’ve been in this employment situation that I consider beneath me, and the people here have their own little clique on their own little territory, hostile to outsiders. No one has been happy. Now, I will be leaving. None of us may end up happy, but perhaps we will all be something closer to satisfied.
“Don’t let the door hit you in the butt on the way out.” Trust me, I won’t.