Naming, Loving, Praising

17 June 2002

Good morning, all. It's my godfather's birthday: happy birthday, Dave! I had my calendar all messed up last year, with people's June birthdays on the wrong days, but it's all better now, so I know when to wish who what.

I finished The Woman and the Ape yesterday, and wondered if Greg Bear had had a chance to read it while writing Darwin's Radio. They were not at all similar in tone, but the theme was perhaps a bit reminiscent. I also read The British In Asia, an absolutely hysterical volume from 1946. It was appalling in spots, but quite edifying -- more on the British mindset of the time as regarded Asia than on Asia itself, but still. It contained some really transparent justifications ("Oh, the poor pastoral dears, it would just be cruel to make them deal with big ol' mean ol' Singapore and all of its nasty lucrative trade in their very own country") and some amazing generalizations. And the thing that really got me was, this guy was one of the good guys, or so he thought. He was talking about how disrespectful some British administrators had been in the the same chapter as he described all of the residents of Ceylon as idle and irresponsible (too irresponsible to name their own country, evidently, as I said to David in a much longer e-mail on the subject). So he could see something wrong with past attitudes while he didn't do a thing to correct the present ones. Scary, that.

I also started Pat Barker's Regeneration, which is good so far. It's about WWI conscientious objectors and men who broke down because of what they saw at the front. Interesting stuff. It's jarring to me, though, because there was a woman in my parents' larger circle named Pat Barker -- not a real friend of theirs, but a friend of a friend, and she had a son my age, so I still hear about them from time to time. So when David offered to lend me some really good books by Pat Barker, I couldn't really get this woman's associations out of my head. But the book itself has done that nicely.

We went to church yesterday, and they didn't ruin themselves for us, which is quite a relief. Their organist looks like he could be Arlo Guthrie's cousin, which is a bit frightening, but as David said, at least we'll know we're set for Thanksgiving.

And I finished the catalog of books! The library file is now completed and saved and ready for perusal and refinement. It doesn't have all of the copyright years on it yet, just author/title/genre, but that's okay. Wouldn't want to get obsessive.

I really think names are the hardest part. When I was younger -- 12 or 13, say -- I would not start until I had all the names I could possibly use figured out and catalogued. Everything had to be named. I think this was a good excuse to sit around daydreaming, honestly, and while I'm not at all opposed to daydreaming, I'm also glad that I got more of a work ethic. So now I put in placeholders that aren't likely to show up otherwise -- XXXX and YYYYYYY for names (if I have a feel for short or long ones), things like Media Conglomerates or Hardware Inc. for companies. And then I let them percolate while I work. Or else I panic at the very end, as with "Fair Use." Uff da mai, those names. They were a tiny step up from Media Conglomerates and Hardware Inc. A very tiny step.

I can't convince myself of their unimportance, is the problem. For the secretary who appears in one scene, sure, if you want to call him Isaac rather than "the secretary," that's fine, no big deal, and you're unlikely to have any issues with it unless you have another character named Isak and people are likely to become confused. So I can name minor characters, no problem. But major character names are important, and countries and companies that show up are important, too.

I have this tendency to get stuck on the same letter, which is bad. In the first few paragraphs of the draft of "Irena's Roses," I had the nurse named Reagan (who kept her name), the doctor named Ruth, and the patient named Rina. Umm, no. So the doctor became Jean, and the patient became Irena, and all was more or less well with that. Especially since I hadn't gotten very far with it. But I did it with "Making It Home," too (another old story -- spring of '99) -- I had Jay and Jenny and James and some other J-name I can't even remember, all running around Mars together with only a very few other people. Not good. I mean, Joanna Russ did it on purpose in The Female Man, and that was all right, but the key there was the "on purpose" bit.

I'm glad I got over giving my protagonists names I wanted, though, because there just aren't that many names I want, and there are lots of stories to write.

The fire trucks just swerved around our corner to head north, sirens and lights and all. We get lots of fire trucks here, fewer ambulances. And here comes another, just heading north on the north-south street. It's noisy sometimes, but not so scary as the sickening crunches we hear on the corner. People think they can see farther around the corner from the right turn lane than they actually can. When we're turning there, they honk at us to go, go! but we've seen too many accidents that way, so we wait until there's no truck coming down from the quarry to sideswipe us, no speeding Honda with a built-up spoiler streaking south. Whenever the people in San Jose talk about airport curfews to reduce the noise, I think, "Come and live here, and then talk to me about how you're so put out by the airport noise." It's their choice to live there, as it is ours. Even in the worst of the housing market crunch, there were other places available.

Yesterday, the Merc ran an op-ed piece by Jane Smiley about why California is worth it. And most of her argument boiled down to "it's home." She talked about how far it would be to wonderful things if she lived elsewhere -- wonderful things like fresh produce and wilderness. Naw, we ain't got none of those anywhere else. No restaurants, neither. If it's got fusion in the name, hoo-eee, it better be a bomb and none of that there froggy MSG stuff, 'cause we don't like food less'n it's got real beef gravy. Seriously, I'm glad that she loves California, the fog, the hills, all of it. I know how places can get into your bones, and if this place has gotten into hers, wonderful. It's good to find your place. But she seems to have mistaken her own sensual delight in her home for a universal sensual delight that's lacking in other places. She also mistakes lack of means for lack of materialism and taxation for "sharing."

"Because it's home" is an acceptable answer to "why do you live there?" It's all right if you can't really explain the appeal of the redwoods, or the high desert, or the way the entire world turns a shining pale blue at twilight in January in Minnesota. You don't have to explain it, and if you try, you'll probably sound ridiculous. It's like trying to explain why you love someone -- you end up sounding shallow ("He's got these amazing eyes") or pompous ("We share many goals and values") or just getting it all wrong. Just say what you love and what you like about it. Let the loves and the likes accumulate. You know that there are things you'll never be able to remember until you're in the middle of experiencing them. You know that there are things you'll never be able to tag with a name. And it's all right not to.

Part of the problem I have with this type of justification -- of people or of places -- is that its comparisons are so often ridiculous. Is this truly the only place in the world that Jane Smiley can be near the ocean and good restaurants and beautiful scenery and organic produce? I think there are some people in parts of New England or Oregon who would argue with that. To say nothing of the entire rest of the world. Is someone's boyfriend really the only person in the world who would remember that she likes tulips and not roses for her birthday? I doubt that, too. But they don't have to be comparatively wonderful. They just have to be wonderful. Wonderful is quite enough. The specificity of loving makes comparisons silly.

I think we confuse loving and praising too much. There's a line in "Anna Begins" that says it better than almost anything else to me: "Every time she sneezes I believe it's love." And I really love the different ways the people I love sneeze. I do. But that doesn't mean that they sneeze like the song of a soaring lark. (Thank God -- I'd be really upset if allergy season made it sound like there was a trapped flock of songbirds in my apartment.) It just means that I love them down to the details, down to the things that don't stand out as good, because the details are theirs. My mom has a cute little dainty sneeze, and one of my friends sounds like he's killing an elephant, and if you just presented me with the dainty sneeze or the elephant-killer independent of the person, I wouldn't love either one. But I smile whenever I hear them.

I think one of the fundamental mistakes of our culture is the idea that if only other people understood us, they'd agree with us. Sometimes that's just not true. But it doesn't have to be true as long as we deal with each other respectfully when it's not. I think it's hardest to deal with this sort of thing when it comes to loves, though -- I know that I believe, deep down, that everybody should love the people I love. Maybe not the things I love. I understand that Frobenius' Method, for example, is not likely to become a general taste, and I really do love Frobenius' Method. (It's so nice.) But the people I love? Yes, everybody should love them. Just look at them. See? Lovable. And sometimes it really has been true that I've learned to love or at least like people because someone I love does, and I've learned to see with their eyes. That reinforces the tendency to think that it should work that way. But really, it shouldn't. When I was little, my dad taught me I didn't have to like anybody in particular, and neither do you. It doesn't make you a philistine or an idiot, it doesn't even mean you don't understand.

Sometimes I write things down to remind myself that they're true.

It's June in Northern California, barely 70 degrees here for a high, and I am homesick for the prairie. I would be happy if I was in Minnesota now -- oh yes. But June at home on the plains is almost as good as July on the plains, the dusty hot smell with a little iron and a little asphalt around the back of it, the slightly desperate smell of green June growth before the cornhusks go bleached-brittle-tan in the heat. There's time in those smells. I'm struggling to find time in the way it smells here. Timprov and I went for a walk last week in the neighborhood he calls "topiatopia" (for all its shaped bushes), and it was a lovely April day, and it'll likely be a lovely April day for most of the rest of the year. I remind myself that the sense of stasis is mine and not universal, that native Californians probably don't feel it at all. The things they love are totally different -- they're not just my things twisted.

Yep. I write them down to remind myself they're true.

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