Friday, December 16, 2011

"B" Stings: You're Naming Your Kid WHAT?!!

"B" Stings: You're Naming Your Kid WHAT?!!: My all-time favorite among unfortunate given names is Stringfellow Barr . Yes, yes, I know he was the founder of St. John's College an...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

You're Naming Your Kid WHAT?!!

My all-time favorite among unfortunate given names is Stringfellow Barr. Yes, yes, I know he was the founder of St. John's College and quite obviously a gentleman and a scholar. Even so, I'm compelled to imagine the circumstances in which his naming took place.

Perhaps it went something like this:

Prospective Mother
(to Prospective Father):  My dear, what do you think we ought to name our dear, wee boy? I'm rather partial to Twinetot.

Prospective Father: That's a bit of a sissy name, don't you think? What about Fiberfeller?

Prospective Mother: If you're looking for a more manly-sounding name, how about Ropebloke?

Prospective Father:   Ropebloke?  Sounds rather working class, I should think.

Prospective Mother:  Well, there's always Stringfellow, I suppose.

Prospective Father:   Stringfellow! Now that's a damn fine name. A damn fine name, indeed.

Big Jim Hogg, governor of the great state of Texas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, named his only daughter, Ima. The poor girl managed to rise above the suffering caused by this act of blatant cruelty and became a noted philanthropist. When signing a document, however, she trained herself to write in an illegible scrawl.

Names like Joy, Grace, and Spike carry the potential for being gross misnomers. What if Joy grows up to suffer from severe clinical depression, Grace turns out large and clumsy, and Spike develops into a geeky botanist?

Hippie names such as Sunshine, Dharma, Rainbow, Krishna and Skye are a potential obstacle in the path of conservative aspirations. For instance, as an evangelical Christian pastor, the Reverend Dharma Krishna Jones is unlikely to attract a large flock, and how many Republicans would vote for Rainbow Smith as a candidate for public office?

Some names set people up for ridicule:  Fanny, for a girl, for example, or Galen, for a boy.

Then there are the unpronounceable names. If you were a boy born in Madagascar, you name might be Andrianatmpokoindrindra.  However, one needn't look further than America's linguistic Mother Country for a list of names which the average American finds daunting. St. John, for example, when used as a first name is pronounced SIN-jin, Siobhan is pronounced ShivAWN and Niamh is pronounced Neev.

Among the above list, I count my own name, Bronwen, pronounced BRONwen (short o, short e). You see, my father's family was Welsh, not a particularly prestigious ethnicity in Britain but apparently rather exotic here in America. My sister fared somewhat better having been given the name Gwendolyn (shortened to Gwen) and also the middle name of Margaret. My middle name, on the other hand, is Powell, leaving me no alternative except the diminutive Bronnie.

To say I detested my name is putting it mildly. Perhaps if Id been an extroverted, easy-going sort of a child, I would have felt differently. I might even have felt differently if I hadn't been born during an era when everyone was named Sally, or Suzy or Jane. The truth is, I was excruciatingly shy and when the classroom teacher, while taking the role, called out "BRON-son?" or "BROWN-wyn?" I  whispered "Here" amidst a cacophony of giggles. The diminutive, Bronnie, was almost as much a subject for ridicule. People either pronounced it Bonnie, or, more often, Brownie. One or two people even said Baloney (I swear, I'm not kidding). Anyhow, by third grade I stopped trying to correct them.

My hands- down favorite misconstruction of my name came to me in a letter addressed to Bro. Nwyn. Presumably the sender thought I was in residence at a monastery.

Unlike naming practices in other cultures, Americans are largely indifferent to the actual meaning of a given name so long as it sounds good. For example, a well-educated couple I know named their daughter Mallory which derives from the French word malheureux, meaning unhappy. Would the name, Brendan, have achieved such popularity, I wonder, if people understood that its meaning, in Irish Gaelic, is smelly hair?

I was informed by my father that I was named for a Welsh princess -- which is total bullshit! Actually, the word, bron, in Welsh, means hill or breast and the word, wen, means white. So, if I wanted to go by the translation, I might invite everyone to call me Whitetit or Fairbooby.

Here's a ray of sunshine, though, at the end of the long, dark nomenclature of my hapless life. My name actually derives from the Mabinogian name, Branwen, which translates to White Raven. The fact that the goddess, Branwen, ends up dying of sorrow doesn't entirely diminish my happiness in this discovery.

You can call me White Raven if you want, or Bronwyn (spelled with a y instead of an e), but, actually, for more than a decade now, I've mostly been called "B".  Anyhow, those are your three options. If you call me anything else, I'll probably hit you.

I think there should be a Naming Police, possibly a division or sub-division of the Department of Social Services. Whenever names such as Stringfellow or Moonmaiden appear on a birth certificate, the Naming Police should rush in and threaten to arrest the parents for child abuse.

I must admit, the image of my eminently dignified parents being threatened with jail on my account gives me a certain perverse pleasure. To avoid the awkward publicity, they surely would have renamed me Maryann or Susan. I'm sure, if they had, my life would have been quite different.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Deadbeat Fritos (Or the Frustrations and Subtle Benefits of Going Deaf)

I am half deaf. That is to say, roughly fifty percent of my hearing is gone. Yes, I know you can't really be half deaf anymore than you can be half pregnant. The thing is, when I contemplate my hearing loss, I picture a flag at half mast struggling bravely to catch the wind. As my hearing continues to decrease, other metaphors will no doubt leap to mind -- a quarter moon perhaps or one-tenth of an Oreo cookie.

Right now, though, I'm in mourning over the death of half my hearing. I am, in other words, half deaf.

What this means is that in a room of ten or twelve people seated around a table for the purposes of discussion, I might catch about forty percent of what's being said and that's only true if the people in question are articulate, middle-class Americans from the Northeastern or Far Western parts of the country. I am incapable of comprehending anyone with a foreign accent, anyone who mutters, anyone whose voice is unusually nasal or high pitched and virtually anyone under the age of six.

Loss of hearing allows me essentially two choices. I can either pretend to know what the other person is saying and make a wild guess as to how to reply or I can say, "I'm sorry, can you repeat that please?" Consequently people think either that I'm frustratingly needy or just plain bat shit crazy. They may also conclude that I'm a bit simple minded, possibly in the early stages of dementia.
For instance, if I find myself alone in a restaurant without a friend or relative to serve as interpreter and the food server is someone who has never bothered much with articulation, the conversation can go something like this:

FS:   Dyawansouprsala?

Me: I'm sorry?

FS:   Souprsala, whayawan?

Me (taking a wild guess): Yes.

FS:   Ma'am, yacantavboth?

Me:  No thanks, I don't want broth.

Speaking with children yields similar results. My oldest grandson used to be pleasantly (though somewhat loudly) audible. Since becoming a teenager, however, his mode of communication consists of aiming his words in the direction of his collarbone and talking in a low (usually sardonic) monotone.

My youngest grandson, aged six, communicates while jumping up and down, twirling and circling around the room and tugging at various articles of his clothing.

The only one of my grandsons I can understand consistently these days is my middle grandson, age eleven, whom everyone else thinks is too loud.

Children, typically, find hearing-impaired people infuriating. A typical conversation between myself and a child might go something like this:

Child:  C'navsumteet?

Me:    Who's Canasta Pete?

Child:  NO'MUNGRY!

Me:  Nome's in Alaska, not in Hungary.

You are perhaps wondering whether I wear hearing aids. I did briefly but now I do not. You see, the thing about hearing aids is that they are expensive -- $2,000 to $7,000. Medicare does not cover them -- understandably, since being able to hear is clearly a luxury and not essential to one's quality of life.

Before I went into retirement and relative poverty, I did purchase a pair of hearing aids for $3,000. They continually malfunctioned and had to be sent back to the factory over and over again. Finally, I lost one of them after yanking it out of my ear in frustration because it had -- once again -- gone dead. Needless to say, this happened after the warranty had expired.

So much for hearing aids...

The upside of being half deaf is that what you think you've heard people say can be quite funny. For instance, when my son-in-law said, "Can you pass the salt, please?" what I heard was "I'm fasting with a cod piece."

The other day, that same son-in-law (I only have one) was lecturing me about my unwillingness to adapt my driving skills to a more challenging climate. "Are you going to freak every time it snows?" he demanded.

That time I understood him perfectly but pretended not to. "Did you just ask me if I wanted to eat deadbeat Frito's?" I inquired innocently.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

My Birthday and the Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

I was born a day before the two-year anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. I can't prove this is significant though I'm sure my parents, on more than one occasion, perceived December 6, 1943 as a date which will live in infamy.

I was not a good child. However, the magnitude of destruction I wrought in the course of youthful rebellion is memorable only to a few surviving members of my parents' generation. When they die, my unfortunate reputation will be forever erased and expunged. Then I'll die, too, and no one will know or care that I trampled my father's ivy plants, kicked down the door to my bedroom, stole pickles from my neighbor's pickle jar, sassed my teachers, terrorized my babysitters and got kicked out of Girl Scouts for breaking and entering (as well as for using swear words).

Various explanations have been put forward to explain why I behaved so badly, but all of them pale when one takes into account that I was born under the ominous shadow of Pearl Harbor. It's worse than being born on the Ides of March, though (admittedly) not so bad as being born on September eleventh.

My daughter was born on Friday, the thirteenth. At first I was distressed by this proverbially unlucky date, but then I read a lot of books about Christianity's attempt to stamp out Paganism and learned that the number thirteen, if you were pagan, was actually fortuitous. If you are a neopagan, you will understand this. Anyhow, instead of mourning my child's birthdate, I took pride in it and I still believe that her mass of coppery gold curls resulted from liberal sprinklings of fairy dust.

From a purely rational, scientific point of view, I suppose it doesn't really matter which day you were born on. This perception is fine for people who weren't brought up on stories like Peter Pan, The Water Babies, Grimm's Fairy Tales, and Arabian Nights, and were never attracted to folk lore or mythology.

Even if you are one of these rational types, you have to admit that being surrounded by people all talking loudly and indignantly about exploding battle ships is not the most propitious atmosphere in which to celebrate one's birthday.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Good Old Days vs.Nowadays

"No one cares about being polite these days," an elderly woman commented sourly. Though the temperature was in the mid seventies, she was wearing a bulky cable-knit sweater that smelled faintly of mothballs.

Her female companion, also elderly, instantly warmed to the subject. "These young people can't even be bothered to say 'You're welcome,'" she snorted.

"That's right," her friend agreed. "They say 'no problem.'"

I overheard the above conversation while shopping at Target and found it profoundly depressing. I am currently sixty-seven years old. How long, I wondered, before my shriveled, lemon-sucking mouth begins spewing forth these resentful criticisms and comparisons?

Will I, someday, actually care if "no problem" comes to replace "you're welcome."?

Are there, I wondered, any conditions and/or conventions, outmoded and outdistanced, that I long to have back?

I guess double-scoop ice cream cones at only ten cents each would be nice.
So would five and ten cents stores. And old-fashioned variety stores.  And comic strips like Little Lulu, Rex Morgan, M.D., Brenda Starr, Pogo, and Denny Dimwit.
  Well, maybe not Denny Dimwit.

On the other hand... a teenager in high school, I dressed in pleated skirts and wore stockings secured with a garter belt. My seams were always going crooked, and the garter belt cut painfully into the backs of my thighs. The whole world seemed booby-trapped to snag my stockings and I (or more often my mother) was obliged to spend a fortune on nylons.

Back in the fifties, there were no warning labels on cigarette packages. There were, however, abundant television commercials applauding the smooth taste of this or that brand. Hardy, outdoor types like the Marlboro Cowboy inhaled deeply before casually mounting a bucking bronco. Sophisticated ladies sucked on Salem's while seated decorously beside a tranquil lake.

The few African-Americans on television (referred to as Negroes or Colored People) were confined to certain roles such as corpulent household maid or comically ignorant manservant. At some point, Harry Belafonte was Hollywood's only dark celebrity to be followed later by Sidney Poitier. Women were restricted, too.  According to a popular joke of the time, men went to college to get their BS, women to get their MRS.

All that said, however...

I've always secretly resented having to wear a seat belt. It makes me feel confined without my consent. I am also ambivalent about cell phones because they keep you on an invisible leash -- multiple leashes actually. You go on a private adventure only to be tugged back by something urgent that someone wants you to do. There is something exhilarating, I think, about being out of reach even if it sometimes places you in danger.

Restriction of range is another thing I regret. For instance, as a teenager, I wandered through the downtown Washington, D.C. at night with nary a fear of being mugged, mauled, raped or whatever. Downtown, in those days, was full of bongo drummers, beggars, businessmen, people from the projects, bureaucrats, beatniks, foreigners, folk singers, etc., all mixed up together. There were also plenty of cheap restaurants with good food that weren't part of some food chain.

Then there's the matter of airports...

When you left on an airplane, your family and/or friends followed you all the way to the gate. Once on board, a perfectly coiffed and well-proportioned stewardess would offer you chewing gum to keep your ears from hurting. Later, you were treated to a free meal (not gourmet, perhaps, but usually quite edible). When you deplaned, your welcoming party was stationed right there at the gate and could help you manage the extra shopping bags you'd acquired during your trip. You could bring your razor and your nail clippers with you. You could even bring your Swiss army knife. Nobody groped you; nobody scrutinized you in your radioactive nakie.

On the other hand...

I am quite happy not to rely on a typewriter and, especially, not having to struggle with white-out or smeary sheets of carbon paper. Being able to surf the net is far better than having to consult an encyclopedia or spend hours in the library where you can't eat, drink, or swear profusely out loud.

I also appreciate not having to write letters in my awkward arthritic-looking cursive. E-mail and Facebook suite me just fine.

Are children ruder, wilder, lazier, more ignorant than they were forty or fifty years ago? I really can't say but I will say there was nothing exemplary about sixties teens. I, for one, specialized in being outspokenly rude and judgmental. To my way of thinking, my parents generation had made a whopping great mess of the world and it was left to us -- their enlightened progeny -- to repair the damage and fashion a utopia in which everyone would somehow survive happily while doing only what they chose to do. I mean, don't do it, if it doesn't groove ya, man!

Kids have sex younger and more of them do drugs than they did in my day. On the other hand, there is less shame and secrecy over becoming pregnant and (despite the Republican Party agenda) greater access to abortion. There is less of a stigma attached to being in psychotherapy or following a twelve-step program.

In the fifties, when I was a child, children of divorced parents were looked askance at and sometimes shunned. This, however, does not mean that today's practice of serial monogamy is necessarily a good thing.

What I'm getting at, of course, is that the progression of time yields a mixed bag of positive and negative changes.

It seems pretty obvious, if you study history, that there never was a time you could reasonably label "The Good Old Days."

What there is is a group of old people, once lithe and limber, once needed if not valued, once clever and energetic who, now are clumsy, slow-witted and essentially irrelevant unless, of course, they are rich and in a position to make others rich as well.

If I ever find myself spitting out negative comparisons between now and then, I hope I will pause long enough to remind myself that what I actually miss is the range and freedom of a young body and the quick responsiveness of a young mind.

Meanwhile, if someone thanks me, I'll respond to them by saying, "No problem."