Category Archives: Thoughts

Really Low Surdite Levels

There is a secret element called surdite. It exists inside every thing and every being, to a greater or lesser degree. The amount of surdite in a thing is inversely proportional to how absurd something is. Stuff with less surdite tends to be more absurd because to be Surd is to be normal. To be absurd is to have all the surdite taken out of it.

Q: Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?
A: Because he was dead.

That there’s a joke, son! A joke with almost no surdite. Only a surdless person like myself would get the joke. Otherwise it’s just a ridiculous statement. I can hear my in-laws shouting right now. “That’s not funny! That’s not even a joke.” Awwww man. You’re no fun anymore!

I was musing on humor yesterday. The moments I find myself laughing are so completely different from the ones many of my friends laugh at. Why do otherwise-compatible couples end up in divorce over Monty Python and the Holy Grail? If you don’t laugh at the French knight saying “Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries,” your surdite level is ridiculously high.

I love absurdity. It makes me laugh. Put a weird person in a weird situation, (or put a weird thing in a weird person), and it makes me snort.

Christo Umbrellas
The artist Christo’s Umbrellas of Doom. Kern County, California (around 1991).

Here is a clipping from a 1991 New York Times article:

“A 485-pound yellow umbrella, part of an international project of the environmental artist Christo, was toppled by winds on Saturday, killing a woman near here and injuring several other people, officials said.”

I saw the Christo umbrellas (not the same as a CRISCO umbrella. That’s different). They were huge and yellow. My friend Dina and I were driving over the Grapevine between Northern and Southern California, to visit some friends in Anaheim. Then an umbrella went rogue. (“In a world where umbrellas go rogue…”) When we drove back, the umbrellas had all been uninstalled. Crisco art is not meant to kill.

Yeah. I get it.  A life was lost. But I couldn’t stop laughing. When I told my friends that Christo’s happy yellow 485 pound umbrellas had gone away, I couldn’t manage to supress a little snort of laughter. My friends said “But Brian! That’s just awful!” I know! It was horrible in the most hilarious of awful ways. Maybe if my mother had died in a freakish gorilla’s-umbrella accident I’d have been… Nah. Who am I kidding here? It’d still be funny.

Still not funny?

Here’s the NYT headline from three days later: “Second Death Mars Christo’s Art Exhibit : Umbrellas: A crane operator is electrocuted while dismantling a giant parasol in Japan.”

I don’t know. Christo also covered an entire island in red Saran Wrap for world peace. He also managed, with his Umbrella installations, to create an artistic work with the least surdite imaginable. And don’t get me started about New York Times using the word Mars in a headline. You mean the planet? Death Mars? I played that game on the Nintendo GameCube, I’m pretty sure.

If you mix an unusual person, place or thing, apply a little time, add an unusual catalyst, you can generally reach a level of absurdity. Do they make you laugh?

I’m thinking back to every Coen Brother’s movie I’ve ever seen, except Fargo. I didn’t like Fargo. I don’t know why.

Q: Hey. These balloons blow up into funny shapes at all?
A: Naw. Unless round is funny.

Round, my friends, is HILAROUS. The mini-muffin is the most comical of all baked goods. Asparagus is the funniest vegetable. It even makes your pee smell funny. The snickerdoodle is the funniest cookie available. and haberdashery is the funniest profession. Insanely-low amounts of surdite.


Two days ago, the Guy in Front of Me at the Grocery Store purchased twelve gallons of distilled water, two gallons of liquid bleach, a bottle of Merlot and a baguette. After he cleaned up the murder scene, I guess he was going to have a little picnic?

I remember going to a wedding where the bride sent me on an errand: head to the grocery store, and buy (1) flashlight batteries, (2) mayonnaise, and (3) 4 bottles of sparkling cider.  It was apparently gonna be a hell of a honeymoon. Batteries, mayo, and Martinelli’s are notoriously low in surdite.

Another grocery store anecdote: a few months ago, the Woman in Front of Me bought three dollars in lottery tickets. She won $200 dollars. Cool! So, she bought $195 more in lottery ticket, and a box of Popsicles. She stood there in line eating her popsicles, and scratching off 195 more tickets. She held up the line for whatever-length-of-time it takes to remove the grey stuff from all those Scratchers. Maybe that grey stuff is surdite, because the more she removed, the more weird it seemed, until it was ludicrous. Hilarious. Absurd. Eventually other cash register operators took the patiently-waiting customers and she merrily stood there, scratchin’ the surdite away.

It takes a certain type of humor, and probably a morbid mind, to make the connections I do. Is it objectionable to link giant yellow death umbrellas, and twelve gallons of distilled water, and a ridiculous joke about monkeys falling out of trees? Probably? But my surdite levels have been obscenely low, and as far as I can tell, they will continue to drop for the foreseeable future.


Ahhh it gets me every time…


Clique Bait

I have been glancing periodically around Facebook, and have been seeing all the negative posts. It’s an election year so this is expected to some degree. However, a particular subset of posts tend to grouch me up more than others. These posts usually show a picture of some kind, and end with the words “Share if you agree.”

I won’t share, and I don’t agree. In fact, even if I did agree, I still won’t share.

As a culture, we to want to identify with others. We tend to divide into groups, and this is good. But “Share if you played in the mud growing up, and didn’t spend all your time staring at your cell phone?” Let’s break that thought down for a minute. I’ll lean on my own experience here: I stared at books (cell phones didn’t exist back then) but I also played in the mud. It’s not an either/or situation. A person can be both. And this fact does not make me a better (or worse) person, if I happen to favor one over the other. You can enjoy two things, even if they conflict with one another. Our society is not so black and white as we want to believe it is. Answers in life do not come easily; they aren’t handed to us on platters. But I’m certain we won’t get anywhere by entangling ourselves in groups we form in vapid outrage over nothing.

I feel a deep-set resistance (and sometimes even anger) every time I see a “Share if you agree” post. In fact, I might have agreed to share a “share if you agree” thought or two, if I hadn’t been badgered into “share if you agree.” This is a tongue twister. From here out I will call them Share If… posts.

When I was a young man, I had lots of opinions. Now that I’m older… it’s true: I still have lots of opinions, but something has changed. I have learned when to keep my mouth shut. Asking my friends to “share if you agree” smells like arrogance. I’m generally not looking for allies in my opinions. I don’t have any particular need to locate the folks who “Played outside all day long and drank from the garden hose, and climbed trees andnothing bad ever happened, Share if you agree.” This isn’t church, and I am permitted, in life, to enjoy saints-who-climbed-trees right along side the non-tree-climbing brethren.

I can’t decide which particular facet bothers me so much about these posts. Each of them displaces a certain amount of thinly-veiled disdain, piled upon unearned opinion, piled upon personal preference. It’s like a dunghill entree,  on a bed of crap salad, with turd puree. From every angle, it’s disgusting, stinks of poo, and is inedible from the top down. Or the bottom up.

Heh. Poo. Bottom. I’m hilarious. Share if you agree.

I derive a large part of my disgust from Share If…. posts because they polarize people. When I don’t agree to share the person’s post, I’m having our differences pointed out in a crude fashion: “Look at my opinion! Sign onto this list to prove you agree with me! You didn’t sign on? Well, what kind of freak are you?”

And a Share if… meme gives you no option of politely declining. It is really saying “Share if you agree, and if you didn’t share, you must not have agreed. Which rates you on the scale somewhere between diarrhea cramps, and people who serve coffee for a living.”

Very recently a jury convicted a Stanford swimmer of rape. The judge sentenced the young man with a drastically reduced jail time. Immediately, accusations of racism, favoritism, rape-condoning all moved to the top of our Facebook feeds. “I stand with the victim. Share if you agree.” Well, yes. I am willing to say that, as a nation, we don’t condone rape. And a light sentence flip-flops the whole court process. And we really need justice. Agreeing with the Share if… throws me in with 100% of the population (or near enough), so what is the point? “We hate rape. Share if you agree.” “We are humans. Share if you agree.” The post should not insult me with a “partisan” argument that really hasn’t got two sides. They have a word for this: it is click bait.

I have a coworker who occasionally points past a new employee, and says “Wow! Look at that deer out there in the parking lot!” And when you (or the new employee) turn around, the coworker guffaws. No deer. “Made you look!”

A red herring argument is the guy pointing at a fake parking lot deer, and they are all over the Share if… posts. “Random guy did horrible things with guns and got his sentence commuted. And Democrats think NRA is the problem? Share if you agree…” . Yes, the guy did something bad. That’s a totally different argument than NRA’s problems. Red herring arguments lead to non-solutions. They are conversation stoppers. If you want to solve problems, pointing to a completely different set of problems is ignorant at best, and a cynical camouflage of your misdeeds at worst.

An old man in a picture held a sign in front of his chest: “My name is Vernon . I am 88 years old. I fought and served in World War II. I bet you won’t Share this picture.” You’re right. NOW I won’t. “If you don’t affirm me, I’ll take my ball and go home.” That’s fine. I didn’t want to play ball in the first place. And again, this is click bait. We appreciate 88 year old veterans, almost 100% of the time. Folks who don’t are in the VAST minority. Why would we remind ourselves of this?

There are so many other Share if… memes. A picture of a wooden spoon. “When I was young, this wasn’t just used for stirring a pot. Like and share if you agree.” What does that mean? It’s a spoon. And it paddled your butt. What exactly do you want me to agree with? That we should spank people with spoons? That I was part of the “elected” spoon whupp-ees? At any rate, it polarizes again. Those-who-are-spanked-and-proud, and everybody else. What is the logical extension the post wants us to reach? That spankings make us better? Possible, but debatable. But the post doesn’t want us to debate. It wants us to join a side. The post is gathering recruits for the spoon-spanked army.

Opinions are like gold nuggets. Sometimes you have to work hard to find one. And if you do, you are indeed a lucky person. But nobody wants you waving your nuggets around, saying “hey! Look at MY nuggets. Are your nuggets like my nuggets? Then we can be nugget friends! If you haven’t got nuggets, then leave. You don’t know what it’s *like* to earn a nugget.” Even worse are the folks who inherited their gold nuggets from their parents. “Look at my nuggets! See how smooth and perfect they are. They are nothing like your nuggets; they’re all lumpy and streaked and brown. Because my nuggets have tradition behind them! Nothing compares to my nuggets. If you don’t know what it’s like to inherit your nuggets from your parents, then leave.” Both situations make me queasy. I prefer to quietly dip my nuggets strawberry milk shakes, and go on about my day.

Aaaand that’s all I have to say about that. Blessings to you all. Share if you agree.


Okay, accidentally, I’m wasting time now. I found a Link called “Share if you agree” on Facebook. Still laughing. If nothing else, it has extremely bizarre pictures to look at.

Another Man’s Trophies

Finally, a trophy I can win!

When I was young, my mom and dad split up. You’ve probably heard part of this story, if not all of it, if you’ve been following my blog. I had five whole years under my belt. My mom, my sister and I continued to live in the house on Windsor Drive in Sacramento. She worked on McLellan Air Force Base to make ends meet.

And while she did her thing for the Uncle Sam, I worked at the local kindergarten. My teacher’s name was Mrs. Simmons, and she had a tall pile of red hair. In my mind today, she looks and talked like Marge Simpson, except with different hair. I doubt she had such yellow skin. That’s just my imagination.

In first grade, my teacher was Miss Hitomi, a very short Japanese American lady. She hugged us every day when it was time to leave class. I liked her a lot. I was supposed to have Mrs. Lamb for second grade but we moved to Oregon, and started at Pistol River school instead. This was in 1975.

I said all that because, after a whole year in Oregon, I spent the summer of 1976 in Sacramento again. My time was split between my dad and both sets of grandparents. It was the bicentennial, and the California State Fair was going on. The bigwigs shot fireworks into the air every single night. Some nights I could even stay up late enough to see them. The Montreal Olympics happened that summer as well. Burger King was giving out posters. I had one of Bruce Jenner, the celebrated decathlete. He was the coolest thing that hot summer.

Evel Knievel fell off his bike much more than managed to jump over canyons for me.

Mostly, I stayed with my grandparents, but my sister and I spent a few nights at my father’s house. He shared a place with a couple other guys. One of them was named Douglas. His friends called him Drugless because, well, you get the picture. In this house was first time I heard Neil Diamond. Not that Neil Diamond has  anything whatsoever to do with this story. But the important bit was this: my dad had trophies.

They must have been high school treasures; stuff he had collected when he was young and cool and was a bit of an athlete. The trophies shined in his bedroom. Little men stood on top of their marble platforms, performing mighty feats of wrestling and track & field, just like the decathlete. My father also had a handful of medals that he’d gleaned from whatever-he-did in high school.

I wanted them SO badly.  I wanted to be like the guys on top of the trophies: strong and fast and made from glimmering bronze. So I asked him, “Can I have them?” No, he told me. I don’t remember the reason he gave me. Maybe he wanted to relive those years, back when he had hair? I can’t be sure.

I threw an awful tantrum of some kind. And I remember cheering myself up by singing the “Crash bang, crack em up, and put ’em back again” jingle from Kenner’s Smash-Up Derby cars. My melody making went on for about a half-hour. I asked my Dad, “Do you like my song?” I’m sure he said yes, even though my ears were screaming no, because when you’re a Dad, this is what you’re supposed to do.

Maybe it was my tantrum, or possibly it was my beautiful song. Whatever the reason, at the end of my summer, my dad presented me with a cardboard box full of trophies. At first I was elated to have his shiny athletic accolades. That lasted for about a half hour before I realized that I didn’t earn them.

What’s the point of having a trophy, if you did nothing to get it? These trophies were not mine. My father was giving me a piece of his past, but I didn’t want the past. I wanted a box of accolades. I wanted people to say “Wow! How did you get that trophy?” So I could reply, in some offhand way, “Oh, you know, I’m a wrestler.” And then I’d put on some dark sunglasses and my fans would ask for my autograph. But, of course, none of that happened.

GI Joe
His hair was fuzzy. I eventually picked his scalp off. GI Joe really needed a helmet after that.

In fact, these things ever turned out the way I expected. The Evel Knievel stunt cycle popped wheelies, but it could not (and would not) transform me into Evel Knievel. The same thing happened when I got my 1970s GI Joe and his yellow rescue copter. I didn’t rescue a single person, and neither did Joe. The soldier just stared straight ahead at me with his lifelike hair and beard, and his eyes never even twitched. His kung fu grip didn’t stop a single bad guy that summer. His copter had a cool crane that, if used carefully,  could rescue a small pile of sticks, one stick at a time. But, I their glory never rubbed off; not even when Evel and Joe traded their super powers. Joe fell off Evel’s bike, and Evel just broke even more bones in his already-fractured frame every time he fell out of Joe’s copter.

When you need to do something, you had better do it yourself. Bruce Jenner won’t hurdle his way into your life. Your dad’s trophies won’t make you a better rescuer. And even the combined powers of Evel Knievel and GI Joe can’t make your sister behave the way you want. They’re all another man’s rewards.

Yet, this is nothing to be sad about. It’s just the way things are. Work for the things you want. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. What, in my life, have I done for 10,000 hours? There are no short cuts. Maybe *then* I’ll get my trophies.

Phossy Jaw and Match Eating

When I was young, I used to eat match heads. I don’t know why. Maybe I liked the sharp spark of burnt match against my tongue. Perhaps there was a vitamin deficiency somewhere in my diet that required charred wood. Whatever the reason, that memory is stuck inside my head. I still recall sneaking wooden matches out of the big box on the mantelpiece, striking them, and letting them burn. Then I’d blow them out and eat the little round tips from the ends. I flushed the match heads down the toilet so I wouldn’t get caught. Kids aren’t allowed to play with matches, or so they tell you. For me it wasn’t because I might burn the house down.

A woman suffering from “phossy jaw”

They used to make matches from phosphorous. This was outlawed, because it gave folks in the industry a malformation called “phossy jaw.” If you worked in a matchstick factory, you’d come home with a toothache one day, and then abscesses would form. Then–I’m not making this up–your jaw would eventually start to glow in the dark. Freaking. Glow. In the dark! It was so prevalent an occurrence, that before coal miner’s strikes, and before railroad grievances; before even the meatpackers began to complain about working conditions, politicians began to take note. By the 1890s, many European countries banned the sale of these matches.

Besides, they were poisonous. You only had to eat a few of them to die. It was a common way of making sure your suicide was complete. Eat a pack of matches and you’d die within a few days. Your liver would have giant gaping holes. That’s about all I have to say about matches except that, well, in the United States they were called locofocos. They burned bright and hot, and could burn the hell out of your fingers, or more.

So the next time I complain about my job, I should just point myself to the picture above and be glad–very glad–that I didn’t work for a match manufacturer in the 19th century.

Today strike-anywhere matches are made out of an inert white phosphorous head, mixed with sulphur, potassium and ground glass (the red parts), which is probably why I survived. Yummy stuff.

And this, kids, is why you don’t play with matches, and if you decide to go ahead and eat some matches anyway, this is why you don’t eat them. I was lucky I wasn’t alive during the 1800s, or I’d probably have been dead during the 1800s.

To Fin or not to Fin

Every salmon has a little adipose fin on its back, between its tail and its dorsal fin. The adipose fin has no bones or spines to fill the thing up. The dorsal fin is poky. The tail fin? Also poky. But the adipose fin is, well, fatty is a good word, I guess. Lipid. Gooey. Salmon have a bloop on their back and nobody knows what it’s for.

In fact, adipose means “fat”. It’s a Latin word that showed up in the English language because, for whatever reason, we needed more words for fat in our language. Heaven forbid we just say “fat fin”.

No blog is complete without a photographic rendering of two fish butts.

You see, when the baby salmon hatches in the river, it grows a bit, and then eventually makes its way to the ocean. After a time in the ocean, its urge to breed blinds it from everything else. It needs to get to its birthplace in that river. It stops eating. It becomes all drive and push. Every one of its organs deteriorate except for its sexual organs. A salmon is essentially a swimming phallus.

And this, biologists thought, is why salmon need that extra energy. Extra fat. An adipose fin.

Of course, as most scientists do, they soon realized they were wrong about the adipose fin. Because, after all, when it comes down to it, what do we truly know about salmon?

A little bit. But as to the adipose fin, biologists still have no idea what the fin does.

So when fish hatcheries became a thing around 1870 in the USA, fish farmers  decided to cut off the adipose fin, so they could determine which salmon were hatchery-raised, and which ones were wild. Fin? Wild fish. No fin? Farm fresh.

But–and I’m speaking hypothetically here–what if these organs have a purpose scientists never even perceived?

Scientists recently discovered that fish with adipose fins will flick their tails 10% more than fish without one. This may not sound like a big deal, but a salmon is a propulsion machine. A tail flick means the difference between jumping a rapid, and not making it. Biologists have also discovered neural pathways amid all that back bloop. They think the adipose fin is a sensor fin. It lets them feel currents (or undercurrents?) they could not otherwise feel.

I am not the only one who remembers the 1970s. Those were glorious days. We loved removing useless things. I know my mother had her tonsils removed. I never did but I’m pretty sure most kids of my era had them taken out. And adenoids. A gall bladder is equally pointless. I’m pretty sure Judi doesn’t have a gall bladder, as a matter of fact.

This doesn’t matter to me overly much; I’m not a lover of adenoids, or tonsils. I have never once seen my spleen or my appendix. If I had a fin on my back, and that fin was filled with “bloop”, I would probably want it my back. Or maybe I wouldn’t. Instead of worrying about the existence of a back foreskin, maybe I should just enjoy what I have?

Here’s a thought experiment: what if scientists in the 1950s had decided the external cartilage on a person’s ear is worthless? Just a decoration. Who needs ear? Sure you could navigate without it. But how much better could you hear with the external ear channeling the sensations of sound? Don’t try this at home, kids. Absence of an ear will only make it harder to hang spark plugs from the sides of your face.

Another thought experiment: is it a short step from removing parts of the body one finds useless, to removing parts of society one finds useless? Is euthanizing people the slippery-slope result of a mindset that cuts fins off the backs of salmon? Of course not! We’d shout. A fish is a fish, but a person is a person, no matter how small.

Don’t be shooting me angry e-mails. I did say this was just a thought experiment.

My grandma and grandpa Farmer never kept anything that wasn’t useful. Their ideas ran contrary to the hard-line “Keep everything” thinking that lots of depression-era folks seemed to have. Their home was not sparse by any means, but definitely uncluttered. Everything had a purpose. If it didn’t, it would be trashed. No sense keeping useful things.

Sometimes, when I think about it I wish they hadn’t decided to live so lean. Tidiness is a good thing, I won’t deny it, but I’ve often wondered what it would be like if I saw a treasured plaything from their childhood, or a scrapbook my grandma’s great grandma kept. But those things were never there. Maybe for some folks memories are like adipose fins: possibly useful to someone, but if necessary, disposable.

Things that are there, but not understood, are like an undiscovered country. Rather than decide something is without use, maybe we just haven’t looked hard enough. Biology is a marvelous place to explore. Maybe there are mysteries yet to be unraveled in the universe. Maybe some of them are right there inside our own bodies. Did you ever wonder what it would be like to have gills?

Why Read a Bad Story?

I’m listening to an audio book I don’t like. I’ve listened for about 5 hours, but I’m not giving up. It bothers me that I can’t figure out why I don’t like it.  A writer I admire said, “Find the books that gives you feels, and then figure out why it is giving you feels. Then write books with scenes like that.”I just finished Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It was a fantastic book. And before that, I enjoyed the Raven King series by Maggie Stiefvater. I felt that, as a writer, I took away a lot from both titles. So now I’m reading a book that isn’t dreadful, so much as completely unremarkable. And that, to me, is probably a worse crime at this stage in my writing career.

So the opposite holds true. Find the books with “feels”? Find the ones that make your eyebrows arch. The ones that make you exclaim “No no no!” because every time I read a passage, it’s like the shaggy dialog gave my eyeballs carpet burn. Or when I see a scene is so clogged with crap, I want to call a septic tank guy.

I understand that it’s not because I’m necessarily a better writer than this author. At least I don’t think so. I don’t know how well I can sustain a scene, because I’ve never written more than 20 pages of the same thing, before I grow tired of what I am writing, and feel the urge to move on. It’s because, for me, at least, the cardinal sin of a writer is this: don’t write stuff that pulls the reader out of the world you’re trying to create.

But think of it this way. You want to immerse yourself in a story you can’t put down. Every time you binge-watch a series on Netflix, you are basically doing the same thing: you’re jumping into into a world. And you watch that second episode, that third episode, and the fourth, even though it’s after midnight, and the fifth (my lord, I have to be up at 6AM): every episode is all about putting your heart into the characters, or the plot; simply said, you’re in the “world” of that story.

That’s all easy to admit, but hard to define. What interests me to day is the things that rip your eyes away from a story? What makes a bad story bad? What makes you want to check your watch or think, halfway through a story, “I should really call my car insurance broker. It’s been awhile since we’ve had a really good chat”?

For this book1 the first thing I noticed were its cliche phrases. I am annoyed by characters who constantly “peer owlishly” or who “mutter peevishly.” People who “sit ramrod straight” or have a “furious scowl”.

There is a wonderful quote from the movie Dead Poet’s Society:

Avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys–to woo women–and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do.

The character was teaching boys  in a 1950s preparatory academy, so the slight sexism can be forgiven, maybe? The point I’ve always taken away from this scene was this: language is powerful. And lazy language is the opposite. Choosing exactly the right word (if I can conjure it): that is one luxury I will always have as a writer. So why waste it with “sparkling eyes” and people who “flounce in?”

Another thing that bothers me about this book: characters are dressed like paper dolls. The goth, the jock, the nerd, the heroine, the cheerleader. You don’t know a person by how they dress, even though you can describe a pleated cotton miniskirt, or pom poms, or whatever. These characters move around mechanically, reacting exactly the same to whatever situation, whether they’re being attacked by monsters, or confronted by teachers, or greeting one another. They are, in a word, dull.

A few years ago, I played The Sims. Maybe you remember the game. The player would create a character, and then you would build them a house. The Sim would announce its basic needs, for example, its urge to pee, and as the creator, you would need to supply them with a bathroom. They could tell you about being hungry, but they wouldn’t cook or eat, without you. The sims were like little cornhusk dolls, and you created the story around them. They had form and substance, but you provided their soul. You could make them flirt with neighbors, or buy a pet, or remodel a house. You could choose their job. Each choice made your character who they were.

Without soul, we are ugly little cornhusks. And so, like them, are any flat characters writers create. It isn’t enough for a character to have a goal. You need a reason behind that goal, or else the character’s life isn’t really worth reading about.

With that thought, a final quote from the Dead Poets Society:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. So medicine, law, business, engineering… these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love… these are what we stay alive for.

I can only hope that the characters I write are never monotonous. I hope I can always learn when I read a story, even if it’s just a counterexample from a badly-written book.

1I’ll refrain from mentioning the author or the title of the book I’m not enjoying, because I don’t want anybody to rush out and buy it on my account.

Knowing the Names of Things

Every second day, I put on my shoes and perambulate. I take a tour. I go for a stroll.  There’s a paved trail that goes around Lake Thoreau.  I inspect everything like a scientist, cool, detached, reasoned; and when I’m done with that, I bask in the state of things like a poet.

This morning I noticed the lush speckled green of the morning as light shone through the hardwood forest. I noticed a five-leaf plant I’ve never seen before. Lots of people walked dogs on the trail this morning. They sniffed and peed, sometimes showing undue interest in my hairy legs. I probably smell of cat. The morning light catches the lake in such a way that it becomes bright and opaque.  In humid shady areas, I walk through a swarm of gnats. I hold my breath and pinch my nose. A week ago I swear that I could see dafodils blooming amongst the rocks and roots, under the water. Today, there’s only only mangled and soaked cardboard box, and something metallic shimmered beneath the water. A big rainstorm a few nights ago washed everything from the edges into the lake.  There is the smell of rotting wood and dead unseeable things in the more placid corners. Stepping carefully so I wouldn’t hit a pile of runny goose crap, I came within feet of a very large turtle. It poked out its head until I was too close for our comfort, then with a stream of bubbles and a strong paddle of its legs, it submerged. I tracked it for about a minute until it became clear my new reptilian friend wouldn’t come back.

I see fat-leaved walnut trees. I read somewhere they are the last trees to get their leaves, and the first ones to lose them. Or maybe the other way around. The dogwood trees are blooming, dark green leaves and white four-lobed flower opening like a startled gift at the end of each branch. They look like the blossoms would glow in the dark. They don’t, of course. Fireflies will be out soon. Then, in July, cicadas.

It’s so different here in Virginia. The reason I often write about Curry County is because I know the names for things there. Because, guess what? When you know something’s name, only then can you start to love it.

But mostly, I’m not from here, and because of my apartness, I simply don’t know the Names of Things. I don’t know if I’m staring at hickory or beech trees. I can’t tell a white oak from a red oak, or any other color of oak. I’m careful not to touch suspicious-looking plants because Poison Oak is part of my experience but, I’m still not quite sure what Poison Ivy looks like, even after ten years of East Coast.

I’ve noticed trend in the books I’ve been reading over the last fifteen years or so: names have power. A lot of the work by JK Rowling, Jim Butcher, Patrick Rothfuss (and others) have, to a lesser or greater degree, embraced the fact that names have power. Everybody knows you don’t use Voldemort’s name. A good wizard says He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Jim Butcher tells us if you say the name of a creature of Fae three times, you can summon that creature. You can even trap that creature. Patrick Rothfuss has an entire book about the magic of Naming. These are all fantasy authors, but even if names haven’t got actual magical properties, they do a thing that, in the literal sense of the term, is fundamentally fantastic.

At its simplest, a name is just a very, very specific category, often a category of one. Richard Dreyfuss. Marg Helgenberger. George Siefert. There are a few names.

But naming has power. Don’t believe me? Have you ever met anyone named Sharona? Or Roxanne? I defy you to keep yourself from singing “that one song” with their name in it. And what about a Kermit? I bet you can’t stop yourself from mentally referencing A Certain Muppet, for whom it’s not easy being green.

My wife’s name is Judi. Do you know how many people, thinking they’re being clever upon meeting her, say “Judi, Judi, Judi!” like Cary Grant? It makes her fume, just a little bit. I don’t think it’s because she has a sense of being insulted, but because, by virtue of having learned her name, they think they know her somehow.

I’ll say it again: When you know something’s name, you start to know its story. And when you begin to know the story of a thing, you can start to love it.

Every Christmas (well, most Christmases), we pull four or five boxes out of the darker corners of our house, and unpack them. What’s in those boxes? Smaller boxes. Strings of lights. Shiny ornaments. Small wire hooks. Spun glass angels. Tiny brass hunting horns.

We have an ornament with Star Trek’s Commander Worf holding his bat’leth (it’s not Lieutenant Worf. He has a red command uniform and not the yellow uniform of a tactical officer). When Daniel was born, we nearly named him Worf. One friend offered to give us money if we did. So, Daniel has no idea how close he was to being subjected to our fandom. So we’re nerds. So sue us. Maybe if Craig had offered us a bit more cash.

OK… back to Christmastime. We have a painted ornament that’s black and teal, with a shark biting a hockey stick. We have an enormous clear glass ball that Wes and Mari Sanders gave us at a gift exchange. I hate that ornament because it’s prone to fall off its branch. Judi loves it, uh, because she loves enormous balls?

Well THAT came out wrong…

Then there are the ornaments our kids made. Paper tracings of our children’s hands covered in glitter. Cloth Father Christmases with plastic googly eyes. Stuff constructed from popsicle sticks and glue. Yarn and macaroni and a bit of acrylic paint. You know… the stuff memories are made from.

That’s what naming things is like. The more memory you imbue into something–a rock, a place, a tree, a person. An ornament–the more that thing needs a name. And the longer it has a name, the more it becomes itself. Names soak in memories.

If I want to be less romantic about it, names are simply ways of making subcategories. The big box that says “Christmas Decorations” contains a smaller box that says “Ornaments”, which holds an even smaller box, marked “Handmade”. Inside rests Rudolph, paper-and-pipe-cleaner reindeer, the one Daniel made when he was four.

Names give us common ground. If Judi says “Hello, Don Ryall!” in her best Yiddish accent… which is quite bad. No, really… You can’t begin to understand how bad her Jewish Mother impersonation is. Anyway, when she evokes Don Ryall, all three of us have the immediate response of a synapse spark. We both know Don Ryall. And hopefully he knows himself. We know that out of the entire universe of earthdwellers, There are many Dons. There are fewer Ryalls. There might be a handful of *Don* Ryalls. But how many Don Ryalls would respond appropriately to Judi’s ridiculous accent? Only one. Maybe even less, depending on his mood.

Here in Northern Virginia, where I don’t know the names of things so well, There’s a Frying Pan Road, Gallows Road, Lawyers Road, Wolftrap Creek.  A name is a story. I can think of a half dozen “stories” in Curry County right now. Wake Up Rilea Creek. Buzzard’s Roost. Bruce’s Bones Creek. BrokenCot Creek. Pistol River.

Or even Carpenterville.  Carpenterville’s story is part of me. It’s part of my name in both a literal and figurative name. It is built inside my DNA. It’s an old, roomy white house. It’s a lodge and post office I never saw. It’s a ruined sawmill, and a swampy place when it rains.

The native Americans had a name for Carpenterville too. They called it Shxiihe-let, or “Child Top”. Right above Great grandparents’ house, there is a very rocky ridge, covered in lizards and poison oak. It stood up, like a finger. Maybe a child. It was the highest place for miles. And it’s all mine. It’s part of me, tied like a knot in one word.

If you’re listening hard enough, each word, every name, begs you to stop and listen, to learn their story. When I walk the path around the lake every second morning, each flower, each sort of bush, even the animals, call out to me: Learn me. Learn my name. Then, someday you can tell my story.