Baby Names

It seemed, growing up, that people didn’t have a lot of imagination when it came to baby names. For instance, in my freshman history class of 30 kids, 6 of us had the same name. That’s 20% answering in unison when our name was called. It meant that for my entire school career, my name was always followed by my last initial.

Of the 6 of us, I don’t see very many similarities. One of us was tall and fair skinned with long, curly blonde hair. Another was willowy and freckled and loved hiking. Yet another was a cheerleader with eyes so dark they appeared black. I was the chunky drama geek, and I barely remember the two others. And that’s just in one class. There were other girls with my name in other classes, as though everyone named their daughters the same thing that year.

And while I can’t find any similarities among women with my name, I have noticed similarities among people with other names. So many that I find it a bit eerie sometimes. Here is a partial list of those things that, in my opinion, people with the same name share. When I call out a particular name, I am including every spelling variant of that name. For instance, when I say “Catherine,” I also mean Catharine, Katherine, Kathryn, etc.

Theresa: This is the first name that I began encountering often as a child. What the name means to me now is someone who has in the past or will in the future, date or marry someone I have dated or married. Almost without exception, every man I have been with in any romantic capacity has also been with a woman named Theresa. I have not met most of these women, and I’m sure that most of them are perfectly nice people.

Stephanie: All the Stephanies I know are kind of self-absorbed. They don’t really do anything that isn’t in their own self-interest. Even when it looks like they’re doing something charitable, there’s always a hidden reason behind it that’s less public-spirited. And most would argue that this is not a bad thing.

Kyle: All the Kyles I have known have been solid, working-class guys who wear baseball caps and get sunburnt necks.

Keith: All the men I know named Keith are black. That wouldn’t be strange except all the black men I know are named Keith. Except one. Who should probably change his name.

These are just the ones that occur to me off the top of my head. I know where are more. I wonder if I’m the only one who notices this.

Neither Love Nor Money

I went to the drug store this evening looking for those plastic scouring-pad things you use on your face. I normally get them in boxes of six, and I use each one until it’s smashed flat and has no fight to it – about two months or so. This particular pharmacy was the most rinky-dink, low-rent, sad-ass operation I’ve ever seen. Their “skin care” aisle was, to be fair, an entire aisle. But there was only one, perhaps two, but no more than four, of each product on the shelf. And they were spaced a hand’s breadth apart. They had one single sad little teardrop-shaped facial cleansing pad in a box for $4.79. I stood there and stared at it for a minute. Because what I’m used to getting is much, much less expensive.

There was not a single instance of another brand of the same product, no similar products. But you know what I did find? Facial cleansing wipes. I won’t even link to them, mostly because if you Google that particular phrase you get over two million results. Which is about how many brands of the things that store had.

Living in northern California, I feel that I’m constantly being bombarded with the message that human beings are killing the planet with their unending appetite for more consumer goods. I’m inundated with the message that I need to consume less, recycle more, be creative about what I use. And yet, the second I step into any consumer good emporium, the message is not just that I must consume more, but that each purchase I make must be made out of the most material it can possibly use. I can’t buy an aseptic quart box of milk (one that can sit on a shelf without refrigeration before it’s opened), but I can buy four tiny aseptic boxes that are then wrapped in more plastic to keep them all together for more than it would cost to buy a regular plastic gallon jug of milk. People still buy disposable diapers, and then they buy those monstrous contraptions that wraps each plastic diaper in more plastic. Now it’s washing our face. I like just buying some face soap and either using my ancient plastic scrubber thingie or a regular wash cloth and washing my face with it, but obviously, I’m not doing it right if, at the end of every process, I don’t have something to throw away.

Some day soon, we’re going to look back on all the shit we threw away, and wonder “what the hell were we thinking?” It’ll be a day when you won’t be able to get any of this stuff for love nor money, and that day is not far off.

The Anti-Social Network

Today, I told Facebook that I couldn’t play with it anymore. Not anymore ever again, but it’s been getting more of my attention than it should, and I’m a student with a lot of homework to do.

But what do I do with all that stuff that crossed my mind that I didn’t stick on Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else? I thought I’d put it here, in one giant list, just so that you know that I’m still thinking, even when I’m not compulsively posting it and then compulsively checking to see if anyone “liked” it.

In no particular order, my random thoughts: 

  • I finally figured out why my pedometer keeps showing me working out vigorously at ~7:50 every day. It’s because at ~7:50 every day, I am on a particularly bumpy, pitted and frightening piece of road driving my kid to school. I’ll take it, though. Keeping the damn car on the road is hard work, especially when I haven’t had a cocktail in at least 12 hours.
  • Ontologist: a medical specialist in ontology, specifically in curing it. I envision them sort of like the Guild of Assassins in Pratchett’s Discworld.
  • You know what power smells like? The mushroom funk of money? No. Money has no smell – not anymore. Money is now a plastic card plugged into a convenient fiction. The bordello whiff of perfume with its undertones of crotch and armpit? No. Sex doesn’t have the power you think it does, even if you can thread it in one orifice and out another and do it all day for a week at a time. Once people are sated, they’re just as treacherous as ever. No, power smells like urine. You make someone piss themselves and you’ve got them forever. They’ll never forget it, and neither will you.
  • Is “mimetic verisimilitude” redundant?

By the way, I cheated. I know I said I was staying away from Facebook, but I just had to peek. It’s very strange, peeking at people who know that they’re being looked at, just not by you. Everyone’s looking at each other, trying to catch one another’s eyes and positioning themselves so that the other people in the virtual room can see them to their best advantage. Meanwhile from the outside everyone looks a little alone, a little vulnerable. I closed the door very quietly and went away for a good cry at the beauty and sweetness of it all.

A Phobia is Irrational

This past weekend, I attended my sister’s wedding. I had met her partner (now wife) once before at a family gathering in Phoenix, and so didn’t know much about her. She’s an organizer of educational programs for adults and children in Chicago, she’s a talented musician and artist, she and my nephew get along very well. Those things I knew.

Waterfall with rocks and water. Like most waterfalls.

The guests stepped carefully across these rocks to a lovely garden overlooking the pond.

The ceremony was held Saturday morning at Osaka Garden, a lovely Japanese garden hidden away in Jackson Park. After the ceremony, there was a four-hour wait until it was time to head to the reception, and I was lucky enough to get to drive to the reception with my new sister-in-law. I asked her all the usual questions – how did you meet, is this your first marriage, how does your family like my sister…

It turns out that while her family loves my sister, they don’t want her as a daughter-in-law. At least, not if it means marrying their daughter. If my sister were to marry one of their sons, that’d be fine. But not their daughter. They’ve never been accepting of their daughter’s sexual preference (as though it were their business to judge in the first place), and so they’re dismissive of both her relationships and now her marriage.

I listened to her tale of rejection and homophobia with an increasing sense of outrage. My sister is a clinical psychologist in a respected program doing amazing work in Chicago. For twenty years, she has fought tirelessly to end violence in Chicago and throughout the world by understanding the social underpinnings of violence and seeking to disrupt the situations that produce it. She’s testified before Congress, been flown to other countries to introduce these methods to other places having similar issues, and is called upon night and day to give her input on complicated and potentially explosive situations. In addition, she is the kind of person whom all her friends call for anything and everything. She is the kind of person that everyone counts on. She and her new wife met because the wife’s sister used to work with my sister and when her son was in an accident, my sister was at the hospital reading to him, rubbing his feet, giving him pep talks, every time his aunt came to visit. She was so impressed that she knew she had to get to know this woman better. In short, my sister is a catch. The kind of person everyone wishes they could be with.

But she’s not good enough for her new wife’s family because she’s not a man. If she were, and were exactly the same kind of person, women would be falling over themselves to be with her. She would be Chicago’s most eligible bachelor. But because she’s a woman, and a woman in her 40s at that, she’s not good enough.

That kind of thinking makes me angry. It makes me want to shake people and say “Finding someone you love and who loves you in return is hard enough. Why must you make it even more difficult?” It makes me want to say “Don’t you realize that having my sister in your family raises the tone of your family considerably? That having your family connected to her makes you guys look really good?” But no. Instead of embracing the fact that their lovely daughter had what it took to get my sister to decide that she was the best candidate for life partnership, they reject the whole notion. They reject the fact that my sister can be both a phenomenal human being and a lesbian.

Maybe that’s it. I hate the word “lesbian” just like I hate the word “gay,” because it makes me feel that if you have to qualify it with a different noun, you’re setting up a judgement. A hierarchy. I am in the middle of writing a novel about a sculptor who falls in love with his model, although the model believes himself to be a saint, and so can’t return that love. Much of the commentary has been around the “homoeroticism” of the work, and I feel moved to tell people “It’s just eroticism. It’s not ‘homosexual love,’ it’s just love. There’s no need for an adjective; it is what it is.”

There’s no need for a judgement of my sister and her new wife. They are what they are. And they’re both amazing.

My Dinner With the Constitution

We got my daughter’s grades back. The worst remarks she got were in her gardening class. The teacher isn’t happy about the fact that she doesn’t always dress for gardening, and it’s apparent that because she’s outside digging in the dirt, she forgets that this is a class and she’s being judged on her behavior and participation.

We had a talk about what she might do to bring that grade up. What she said she hated most was when the teacher asked her “What are you grateful for.” It was the same question every time, and she always gave the same answer: photosynthesis. She knew the teacher was unhappy about the fact that she didn’t give the question more thought, but she didn’t care. Just being asked the question made her unhappy.

I understand that unhappiness. I’ve long been an outspoken opponent of what I call “that kumbaya bullshit” that one is asked to participate in during corporate team-building exercises. It’s not that I am not grateful for things, nor is my daughter. It’s the forced revelation that galls me. It’s none of my boss’s business what I like or don’t like about my workplace. I will do my work to the best of my ability, and if I feel there are things to appreciate, I will appreciate them. If I feel those things should be shared, I’ll share. If not, you can’t force me.

I told my daughter that the fifth amendment to the constitution protected her from ever having to say anything that would get her in trouble, and that the next time her gardening teacher asks her to give an answer to a question like “What are you grateful for?” she has my permission to say that she invokes her fifth amendment right to avoid self-incrimination. She said her teacher would likely make her to talk to the administrator, and I told her that’s fine. I stand willing to educate anyone about how the constitution applies in everyday life.

As we ate, it became apparent the kid wasn’t going to eat her veggies. After being commanded, she said that she was going to invoke her constitutional rights.

“Which ones?” I asked.

“I invoke my seventh amendment rights!”

“Great! You’ve invoked the right to a trial by jury. That means that we can ask all these good people here in the restaurant whether you should eat your veggies. If they come back with a yes, you eat them or I send you to jail.” She figured she would have 12% of the restaurant crowd on her side. She took a bite of carrots.

“Okay, I want to plead the eighteenth amendment!”

“Perfect! This means that you will not be allowed to drink hard liquor with your dinner. That’s okay, at the age of 12, that wasn’t likely anyway. But 21 is the magic number, when you turn 21, the 21st amendment, which repeals the prohibition of the 18th amendment, kicks in!”

“I want to plead the ninth amendment!”

“This means that any rights not specifically guaranteed by the federal government are up to the states to protect. The feds may say that children are required to eat their veggies, but it’s up to the states to enforce that requirement.”

“I’m invoking the fourteenth amendment, then.”

“That’s a GREAT one! The fourteenth amendment means that you are entitled to equal protection under the law. It means that any person in the United States is entitled to the same legal protections – trial by jury, ability to attain citizenship, constitutional protections – that everyone else gets. And that includes children. And this is why, when you say in class that you are invoking your fifth amendment rights, those rights are real. They can’t punish you without being in violation of the law.”

I can tell you one thing. She’s grateful to have parents who engage her in adult conversation. By the end of dinner, she was fully owning her rights.

Culture of the Hidden

I was talking to my mother this morning about the stuff I’m reading for grad school. Right now, it’s the satires of Horace and Eddie Signwriter.

Cover image for Adam Schwartzman's Eddie Signwriter

I have to admit, a book with a plot is more interesting than a dead Roman preaching at me.

My mother was telling me about the book she’s reading that has a character who is found living in a museum. It made me think of the character in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – the woman secretly living at the top of the Empire State Building. My daughter just finished reading Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, an entire book about a kid who lives in a train station.

What is our fascination with people living in secret spaces in public places? Could it be some spark of hope that if we become victims of the slow economy, that we might still be able to live a charming, eventful life in an airport (a la “The Terminal“) or any of the weird places (a hospital, a circus, a submarine, a cave)  the Baudelaire children lived in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events? Perhaps it’s some kind of gentle admonishment to people who move through subway stations and shopping malls every day to stop and notice what’s going on around them. Or is it the hope that there’s more going on than the mean, grimy mundanity of our lives betrays – the chance that we’re in the proximity of magic every day without even realizing it. That’s the way I look at it.

What Gets In When the Skin Is Thin

My mother tells a story (the same one over and over for the last million years) about how, when I was little, I would play happily by myself for hours on end. Other people would remark on how happy I appeared to be and wanted to join me. Of course, someone else coming into my own private game – someone who didn’t know the rules (of which the primary rule is “I always win”), someone who wanted to do things like share (which means that everything isn’t mine all the time) and take turns (meaning that there’s some time when I don’t get to play) – inevitably spoiled it.

Decades after that, I had a little kid of my own. My second little kid. Entirely unlike the first one, the second one wasn’t a good sleeper. She startled at every noise. She hated all but the blandest foods. She screamed when I dressed her and was only content when naked and warm.

I didn’t think about how much alike she and I were until I heard about highly sensitive people. It got me to thinking about how sensitivity has shaped my life. Like my daughter, I’ve never been a good sleeper. For me, it’s because every little noise wakes me.

Sounds are my kryptonite. Some are worse than others. Sounds made by mouths are horrifying. Other people chewing, smacking their lips, the sounds animals make when they lick themselves – they are enough to cause an unpleasant physical sensation in me. Whistling is unbearable. Similarly, the sounds of certain kinds of keyboards are painful to me. It’s one of the reasons I hated working in an office all those years (sadly, a reason I never felt I could share with my boss). To this day, my husband and I share an office in our home, and when he’s working, I can’t work unless I’m wearing headphones. But at home, I can wear headphones without fear of being fired.

Noise-cancelling headphones and high-tech earplugs have been my salvation. The ability to keep those sounds that most hurt me at bay has been critical to keeping the little sanity I’ve managed to salvage. For my poor daughter, the one who can’t handle physical touch, the challenges are a little tougher. But the second they come up with touch-cancelling clothes, she’ll get the same benefits I have.

The Good Old Days

I often find myself thinking about/arguing over how modern life is different than ancient life, and whether it’s better or worse. Modern life is full of mindless violence, out-of-context sex, artificially engineered diseases, inverted food foams…It’s no wonder modern people look back to times they thought of as simpler. But there’s not a single popularly-romanticized era that didn’t have its own problems that were arguably worse than any we have today.

The Paleolithic period, popularized by the Paleo diet, promises and end to acne, autoimmune disorders, cancer, heart disease, diabetes and any other chronic degenerative disease. It supposes that prehistoric man lived in a veritable paradise of wonderful health and harmony. But the average lifespan of a human living 10,000 years ago was roughly 35 years for men and 30 for women. They were subject to hookworm, malaria, and occasional anemia, and women often died in childbirth. Worst of all, accidents like broken bones, deep cuts and infected teeth killed people slowly and (I would imagine) painfully in a way they don’t now. Can you imagine dying from a blood infection brought on because you’d cut the bottom of your foot on a rock and then had to keep trekking? If you can, keep it to yourself.

Ancient civilizations like Egyptians, Mayans, Incas, Celts, Anasazi are full of amazing technologies and interesting art and science that lead people to insist that they had knowledge that we have since lost. Possibly wisdom gained from extraterrestrials. But all of those civilizations had catastrophic wars with their neighbors, and illnesses common to large populations living in close quarters, like tuberculosis, were common. Slavery was common in ancient civilizations, often a consequence of war where the conquered group became slaves to the conquerers. Childbirth and infancy were still perilous, and infection continued to carry off the wounded.

Perhaps you’re a fan of ancient Greece and Rome? Well, in addition to the invention of philosophy and politics, they saw the rise of patriarchal societies that treated women as property. Near-constant warfare (made easier and more efficient by inventions like the stirrup and teed saddle) and more crowded living conditions, always a fertile breeding ground for disease, were abetted by (in Rome) lead in the famous Roman plumbing that is thought to have contributed to the fall of Rome.

The Middle Ages? Well, they weren’t called the Dark Ages for nothing. More war. More disease. Education reserved only for the rich and the Church. Women’s rights enjoy a brief resurgence, but childbirth and infancy are just as dangerous as ever. Improvements are made to warfare (like the castle, muzzle-loaded cannons, and the codification of battle strategy and tactics), but not so much to medicine. And let’s not forget the plague.

The Renaissance may have seen the emergence of amazing developments in art, sciences and medicine, but it also saw the rise of European Imperialism, bringing with it genocide with both weapons and diseases.

I could go on and on, but the point is that the evils we have now – intolerance, political intrigue, war, fear, anger, stupidity – have always been part of the human landscape. There is not a single period in human history in which people have enjoyed perfect health and harmony, despite what people may wish to believe about their favorite historical period or culture. I don’t care whom you idolize – they had wars and diseases and if you had been part of the 99%, you would have been not only a good deal more poor than you are now, but you would likely have died not only earlier but a good deal less comfortably.

And in fact, people now have a demonstrably higher standard of living than ever before in history. Better education, more knowledge about healthcare and the impact of things like basic hygiene and innoculations, better methods of distribution for nearly everything mean that even poverty looks much wealthier than it has at any time in history.

What I’m trying to say is that we’re not special. We’re not smarter than our ancestors, we’re not more civilized. We’re also no less hostile, no less fearful, no less angry. The one thing that we are, and that our children will be after us, is more efficient. If we manage to wipe out humanity, it will be because we’ve spent all of our thousands of years of history distilling the most efficient way to do it.

I’ll Never Write for the Movies

We all know that I am incapable of having a conversation that doesn’t involve another conversation going on inside my head. But I’ve just realized that perhaps because of my own tendencies, I hate watching television shows where the characters are having some kind of inner turmoil while simultaneously carrying on banal conversation. For instance, a man and a woman are deeply in love with each other and have been for years. Each one hopes that the other one shares the feelings, but can’t be sure.

Him: How are things? Have you been thinking about me every second, as I’ve been thinking about you?

Her: Things are fine. I’ve been so busy. I’ve been thinking about you nonstop, in fact I’ve been fired from four jobs because all I can do is sit and stare out the window, fantasizing about what it would be like to be your girlfriend.

Him: That’s nice. I’ve been busy myself. Perhaps not as busy as you, but fairly busy. You’ve been thinking about me! You’ve been thinking about me! I mean, have you been thinking about me? Because if you’ve been thinking about someone else, I may have to kill myself.

Her: I’m glad things are going well for you. Really glad. I hope that you’re just putting a brave face on the misery you’re feeling without me, as I am.

Him: Thank you. It was so good to see you. Marry me. Seriously. Marry me.

Her: It was good to see you too. Kiss me now. See? I’m closing my eyes. It looks like I’m blinking, but I’m just closing my eyes really fast because I want you to kiss me.

This is Gone With the Wind, Remains of the Day, Big Eden…too too many films to count where most of the story is about people not talking to each other.

It makes me wonder if I should perhaps start letting some of my own internal monologue out. Maybe if I start letting my own internal monologue out, some of the weird misunderstandings so apparent in my own life would disappear.

This couldn’t possibly go badly, could it?

Observing the Decencies

I’ve drawn the Pirate into listening to Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety. It’s the kind of audio book where we stop the playback every few minutes so that we can talk about what’s being said.

One of the points he made was this: “As our standard of living goes up, the luxuries become the decencies, and the decencies become necessities.”

I realized that I had only considered two classes of things: necessities and luxuries. When those are your only choices and you divide all the stuff you own into one of those two camps, you either sound like a delusional hedonist who classifies having a car for each person in their household a “necessity,” or like a rich liberal apologizing by classifying owning a computer as a “luxury.” Granted, what qualifies as “necessary” depends on your circumstances. If you work from home at a tech job, a computer is a necessity. For families living in dense urban areas with public transportation where only one spouse has a full-time job, having more than one car isn’t necessary. Convenient, but not necessary.

Here’s where the idea of “decency” comes in. It’s the idea of a thing that isn’t a luxury, but is a step up from a necessity. The wonderful world of hygiene is a great example. We all agree that keeping clean is a necessity: the first line of defense against diseases ranging from the common cold to cholera to ebola. If we agree that hygiene is a necessity, and hygiene means soap and water, we also agree that soap is a necessity.

If you are the hardy type, you can mix the same lye you use to unblock your drains with some water, add your cooking oil (including bacon grease and meat trimmings), and create a soap that will burn your skin, smell bad and serve your purposes. That’s necessity. Buying lye in bulk and using only your used cooking grease, soap made this way would cost a just under two and a half cents per ounce. When I was a kid, my mom always bought Ivory soap. It didn’t smell weird, and it was inexpensive. You can get Ivory soap for about 13 cents per ounce. Necessity or decency – your call. What happens when you get to things like Lush? Depending on your preference, you’ll be paying $1.99 to $2.64 per ounce for this high-end soap – two orders of magnitude more than the DIY version. There’s no way anyone can justify that kind of outlay as “necessity,” and calling it “decency” is disingenuous.

It’s been making me think about my own definitions. How much do I need most of the things I use and enjoy? How do I justify to myself the purchases I make? I need to think harder about the choices I make. I need to make sure that I’m not buying things just because I’m being lazy or self-indulgent. I need to remember that I’m not alone on this planet, and that I need to play fair, share, and leave some stuff for others.