Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Rose by Any Other Name?

Do you know the story of your name? Your parents went through a process and maybe even a long list to arrive at the eventual winner. If you've had the privilege of naming a child, then you know it is a huge responsibility. The story of your child's name may be more dear to you than the story of your own.

The story of your name is special, not only because it makes you feel loved and connected, but also because you carry that name with you the rest of your life.

Why am I thinking about names? It's that time of year when I ask my students, "What's in a name? Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Would you still retain that dear perfection which you own without the title affixed to you at birth?"

Juliet wants to believe that names don't matter, that they don't define us in any meaningful way other than to keep us from being referred to as Hey You.

My students and I beg to differ. Our names matter. They matter a lot. I might go so far as to say we are defined by our names.

Family Ties
Our names connect us to our families, and while this is problematic for Juliet, it's a positive thing for most of us. More than half of my students have first or middle names they would describe as family names. A few of them cringe at something archaic or unusual, but most like the connection the name gives them to their heritage.

Both of my sons have family names. My oldest carries the name of his father, his uncle, and both his grandfathers. We Irished it up, but it's essentially the same name. My youngest carries a version of my maiden name. Both of them know the origins of their names, and both are proud of those origins.

It's not unusual for a student to have a different last name than his or her parents. In fact, I NEVER assume a parent I meet has the same last name as the kid. The kids deal with it, but my discussion of names always reveals their hyper-awareness of it. One of my eldest son's best friends was at the courthouse on his 18th birthday to change his surname. That need to be identified as kith and kin is powerful.

Get it Right!
It is a universal annoyance to have your name spelled or pronounced wrong. I grind my teeth when people spell my name with a "C." That's not my name. It's not who I am. I can't identify with the word when I see it written out. (Notice that I refused to even write it out.)

The same goes for Brittany and Britney, Sarah and Sara, John and Jon, Kirsten and Kristen, Lucas and Lukas. And oh holy cow, if I say Brianna like fawn instead of like fan, I get my head bitten off and handed to me.

I can't really get mad when Brianna corrects me. What I said isn't who she is. The incorrect pronunciation is as foreign to her as that "C" name is to me. Most of us are outwardly polite about it, but it bothers us. Almost every student I polled has received an award or a trophy or a jersey with their name spelled wrong. They may have smiled, but it was a bitter disappointment. When someone gets your name wrong, they get you wrong.

A student with a particularly unusual name believes she has become more assertive over the years as a result of correcting authority figures in the spelling and pronunciation of her name. Her name has shaped her personality.

Last but not Least
Some students believe the placement of their last name in the alphabet has some bearing on their personality. What happens when you are perpetually last? Perpetually first? Does it inform self-perception? One student whose last name begins with a "W" said he works harder to stand out because he doesn't want to be perceived as last or at the bottom. When a list of names for awards or recognition is called, no one listens past the F's or G's, so he makes sure his name is called often. People eventually notice.

My maiden name was a "W," so I can identify. I hated always being at the end or in the back. Subsequently, I arrange my own seating chart so that a student has an equal chance of being in the front or the back regardless of the alphabet.

So yeah, Juliet was wrong. I don't think we would perceive a rose as smelling as sweet if we named it cat poop, and I don't think our self-perception would be the same if we had a different name. We experience the world through language, and the names we assign both objects and people are the means through which we understand them.

Shakespeare thought so too. Romeo and Juliet couldn't escape the definitions placed on them by their names. And really...neither can we.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Beaver

Are you intrigued by the title of this post? If so, then you might be interested in Mel Gibson's new movie. I honestly can't imagine myself interested in anything Mel Gibson does ever again, and considering I once loved Lethal Weapon and Braveheart Mel, that's kinda sad. In spite of my disgust, the trailer for his upcoming movie made me do a spit take.

Context first: Bruce and I saw Jake Gyllenhal's Source Code this past weekend. Big action flick...some plot holes, but not so big they detracted from my enjoyment of the movie. Overall...entertaining.

Also entertaining...the previews before the movie. You get a pretty good feel for the kind of movie you're about to see from the trailers at the beginning. We saw five trailers before Source Code started, and the experience was a blog post in the making. I actually pulled out my phone after Mel's trailer and made notes. I need to tell you a little about each one to give you some sense of how Mel's fit in. Or didn't.

Thor -- The Norse god of thunder is bringing his big ole hammer to earth, falling in love with a puny earth woman, defying his fellow gods, and blowing some really scary-looking monsters all to hell. The guy playing Thor is cute and all, but unless I'm looking to spend time with my boys, I don't imagine I'll race out to see this one.

Conan -- Oh yeah! He's back and he's bigger than ever! (Seriously, this guy looks like he's done some heavy duty steroids.) Conan beats some really scary-looking barbarians all to hell. His sword is almost as massive as his muscles. The production values appear much better than the original. In fact, it looks like they've eschewed the camp altogether and made an earnest action movie, and that's a shame. I suppose it doesn't really matter. Without Ah-nold, how good can it be anyway? This will also be a pass for me.

X-Men -- There was probably a subtitle on this one since it's the fourth or fifth in the series, but I didn't write it down. This installment takes the audience back to Professor X's and Magneto's beginnings. They used to be friends, but Magneto became bitter when the world rejected him. He acts on his hurt feelings by blowing some not-particularly-scary-looking ships and airplanes all to hell. Meh...the X-Men never were my favorite superheroes.

Mel's Movie -- Do you remember this from your childhood?

I love Cookie monster! And yeah, Mel's movie doesn't have the right number of cookies. I'm pretty sure Mel doesn't have the right number of cookies, but I digress.

His trailer was wildly out of place after the previous three. The only things that get blown all to hell are his relationships and whatever was left of his acting career. Every scene in the trailer is an intense relationship scene. His character is a screw-up (a real stretch for him), and his wife, played by Jodie Foster, and children have walked away. He's apparently hit rock bottom. Then, he finds redemption in a hand puppet, (I swear I'm not making this up) and it's not just any ole hand puppet.

It's a beaver!

He quits talking to people except through the beaver who explains that it creates emotional distance.


Several gut-wrenching scenes ensue after which Mel is finally able to talk without the beaver on his hand. The title scrolls across the screen while the deep voiced announcer says, The Beaver.

Very dramatic, right?

Yeah, not so much. Everyone, and I mean everyone, in the theater laughed. A few snickers turned into guffaws, and then we belly laughed like Mel had mined comedy gold. I'm thinking this wasn't the emotional reaction Mel was going for, but it should have been because, oh holy cow, the beaver jokes I heard all around. I can't even begin to imagine what the late nite comics will do with Mel's hand inside a beaver puppet.

And not only no, but Oh Hell No, I will not be paying 8 bucks to see this mess.

The Three Musketeers -- I have no idea what's going on in this movie besides the obvious, and neither does anyone else who was in the theater. This trailer had the misfortune of coming after The Beaver. I am pretty sure people got beat all to hell, but I was too busy exchanging ribald remarks about The Beaver. I like Dumas, so this one has the best chance of getting my summer movie dollar even though I missed the preview.

So, let's recap...and a pictorial recap might be useful here. One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just isn't the same.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Riding in Cars with Boys...for just a little longer

Earlier this evening, I had to chauffeur my son and two of his friends all over the county. And no, I'm not exaggerating. I picked them up at one kid's house, took them to the other kid's house, so he could get a change of clothes, swung back by my house, so my kid could get a change of clothes, ran through Micky D's because all that riding around makes a young man hungry, and then took them to a fourth kid's house where I happily left them.

I was tempted to be aggravated by the whole ordeal. It was a lot of driving, and gas ain't cheap, my friends. And HELLO! American Idol was on. If not for DVR, their sorry butts would have been stuck. Even so, I groused. Why me? The other kids have moms and dads. Why am I always the sucker that says yes? Why do these kids not have their licenses yet? Why? Why? Why?

Because I was aggravated, I said no when my son asked if he could drive. He has his permit and is a week away from his road test. Mostly, I say yes because I want to give him all the experience I can before I turn him loose without me. But I was aggravated. And there were two other boys in the car. A teenage boy's IQ drops as the number of them in an enclosed space increases. So I stayed behind the wheel.

This, of course, aggravated my son, so he hooked his iPod up to the stereo and cranked it. My sons and I have an agreement when it comes to their music. I will listen to any song once, but if my not-so-delicate sensibilities are upset, then it goes away and does not grace my stereo again. My dear sweet boy, looking to impress his friends or pick a fight or just be an annoying punk, selected the foulest, most misogynistic song on his iPod.

The rapper waxed lyrical about getting wasted at the club with his bitches and ho's (The spelling of this word stumped me. It's not possessive, but hos just looks wrong.), and I'm pretty sure he managed to drop the F-bomb at least every third word. I turned wordlessly to my son because speaking would have been futile over the deafening filth spewing from my speakers and gave him a cold stare.


I read his lips, but didn't answer. My cold stare is pretty frigid, so he turned down the noise.

"That's offensive."

"Really? You like Eminem, and he cusses."

"It's not the profanity that offends me. It's the total lack of originality."


I could see his friends' faces in the rearview mirror. They had been snickering quietly, hoping to see mother-son drama I guess, but they stopped laughing and listened.

"Profanity can serve a useful purpose in a story or a song, but to serve a purpose, it has to be used purposefully. This guy uses the F-bomb because it's all he's got. He's got no story, no message other than 'Oooooo...I'm awesome. I get drunk and high and treat women like crap. Go me.' Total lack of originality, no creativity, no artistry, and yes, I find that offensive. At least Eminem is saying something."

My son was defensive. "There are plenty of rap songs with a real message."

"I know, but this isn't one of them, and since you all like it, I have to question your taste in music altogether. Clearly, you'll accept any stupid lyric if there is an interesting beat behind it."

Yeah, yeah. I know. I've loved many a stupid song over the years. Some of my favorite Aerosmith songs are completely inane, but I didn't tell them that. My son had picked a fight, and I was giving him one.

The three of them went to their iPods to gather evidence that rap had meaningful social value. I had already agreed that it did, but I had dissed their song, so they felt the need to redeem a whole genre. They played several current songs, including Lupe Fiasco's "The Show Goes on." I like that one, and I told them so.

Then one of the boys in the back said, "Oh Wait! This one is awesome!"

I recognized the opening riff immediately. "It's Tupac. Changes. And yes, it's good."

"You know Tupac?"

"I open my poetry unit with Tupac."

My son piped up, "Tupac is cool, but Biggie's better."

So we listened to Biggie. The volume was back at a reasonable level, and the car was otherwise quiet.

When it was over, my son said, "Now that's real."

I grinned at him. "You do realize you're a middle class white kid living in a small town? How real can it be?"

"It was real for him."

Hard to argue with that logic. "Yeah, I guess it was."

At that point, the boys declared themselves vindicated. Their musical sensibilities didn't totally suck. My son surprised me with some old school Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, and the conversation turned to other things.

When we finally reached our destination, I realized I wasn't aggravated anymore. In one short week, assuming he passes, my son will no longer need me to chauffeur him hither and yon. While a part of me is thrilled about that, I'm a little sad as well. I'm gaining freedom, but I'm losing something more precious, time spent with my son.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

If Your Nerve Deny You...

Warning: I generally try to keep the language in my blog posts PG-13, but I'm quoting another source which I refuse to censor, so today, it's R.

Twitter is a great place for discovering interesting tidbits, and today, I came across a wonderful new place to lose a few hours. The Rumpus is a place for all things literary. You will find the usual book reviews and author interviews alongside several columns, comic strips and news of the weird. Two features in particular proved to be a worthwhile time suck this morning.

  1. The National Poetry Month Project: Each day in April, The Rumpus will post a previously unpublished poem solicited from a wide range of current poets. If you click through, you will find a link for last year's collection as well. I read, re-read, and then sat and stared at the Day #3 poem, "Why I did not Make Love to your Dead Body," by Kirsten Kaschock for a long time. Wow.... I'll be adding this site to my Interesting Reads links on the the right side of the blog.

  2. Dear Sugar: This is an advice column for writers. The first two entries I read blew me away. You should definitely click through and read the whole question and answer, especially if you are an artist of any kind, but I felt compelled to post a couple of her comments below.
From "We are all Savages Inside"

I know it’s not easy being an artist. I know the gulf between creation and commerce is so tremendously wide that it’s sometimes impossible not to feel annihilated by it. A lot of artists give up because it’s just too damn hard to go on making art in a culture that by and large does not support its artists. But the people who don’t give up are the people who find a way to believe in abundance rather than scarcity. They’ve taken into their hearts the idea that there is enough for all of us, that success will manifest itself in different ways for different sorts of artists, that keeping the faith is more important than cashing the check, that being genuinely happy for someone else who got something you hope to get makes you genuinely happier too.

From "Write like a Motherfucker"

How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured. How many of them didn’t collapse in a heap of “I could have been better than this” and instead went right ahead and became better than anyone would have predicted or allowed them to be. The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you –,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply
dig., explore, be inspired by this site. As for me? I'm off to write like a motherfucker.