On attentiveness and names.

On attentiveness and names.

When a scientist first discovers a function for a gene, that scientist gets to name it.  Sometimes these names seem reasonable enough: I worked with a hematologist who did a study to identify proteins involved in apoptosis, which means roughly “programmed cell death” or “cellular suicide,” and so each gene wound up named “Requiem 3”, “Requiem 4,” etc.

Fruit fly geneticists tend to give their discoveries more creative names than other scientists.  There’s the gene “cheap date” – if a fruit fly is missing that gene, it will – ha ha – be unable to process ethanol and  so quickly passes out.  Another genetic mutation produced male flies that would court either males or females, and so this was known for over a decade as “fruity,” until another scientist decided that universal courtship could be less offensively described by the term “fruitless,” because clearly any mating-like activity that does not lead to progeny is a waste of time.

Yup, some gene names were bad.  One person’s idea of a joke might seem to somebody else like a mean-spirited reference to the wider world’s power dynamics.

Other gene names were bad not out of malice, but because humor at the expense of a fruit fly doesn’t make as many people laugh when a human child is dying. 

A gene that produces a somewhat spiky-shaped protein was named after Sonic Hedgehog.  It seemed funny at the time!  See?  The protein is spiky, the video game character has spiky hair, and … get it?  You get it, right?

 Okay, so this Sonic Hedgehog protein doesn’t look all that much like Sonic the Hedgehog.  But spend enough time staring at something like protein crystal structures and you’ll experience pareidolia, like seeing animal shapes in irregularly dappled plaster ceilings, or anthropomorphic gods amongst the twinklings of the stars.

Well, the Sonic Hedgehog protein establishes a concentration gradient that allows cells to recognize their spatial position in a developing body.  If a human fetus comes to term despite having a mutation in the Sonic Hedgehog gene (genetic abnormalities will often result in a miscarriage, but not always), the resulting child will have severe brain defects.

And then a doctor has to explain, “Your baby is suffering because of a Sonic Hedgehog mutation.”

And so, in 2006, geneticists capitulated to medical doctors. No more fanciful names for genes that might lie at the root of human health problems … which, because humans and fruit flies are actually pretty similar, means most genes.  Patients would now be told about a mutation in the SHH gene instead of Sonic Hedgehog, or a mutation in the LFNG gene instead of Lunatic Fringe.

Words have power, after all.


Some people are more attentive to their environments than others.  During evolutionary time, this trait was obviously good for humanity.  If your tribe is traveling through a hostile environment, it helps to have somebody around who is paying attention to the world.  A friend who’s primed to notice encroaching threats like a hungry lion about to leap out and attack.  Maybe we should take a different path.  Which, yeah, that sounds like a good idea.

Other people are particularly inattentive to their surroundings, so it’s easy for them to ignore the world and focus instead on one single problem.  During evolutionary time, this trait was surely good for humanity, too.  It’s helpful to have somebody on the lookout for threats that might eat you, obviously.  But it’s also helpful to have somebody who might discover a way of using dried grass to weave baskets.  A way of cooking mud into pottery that could carry or store water.

Image by Herb Roe on Wikimedia Commons.

Neurodiversity is a virtue in and of itself.  Over the millennia, the world has offered our species many challenges.  Populations that were sufficiently diverse that some members were good at each of a variety of tasks were most likely to flourish.  A cooperative species like termites or Homo sapiens benefits from specialization among its members.

Left to our their own devices, people would naturally fall asleep and wake up at different times.  Some brains are primed to work best in the early morning; others work best late at night.  And that’s good.  It reduces the amount of time that a tribe would be susceptible to attack, everyone asleep.

But in the modern world, we occasionally forget to feel grateful for the diversity that allowed our species to thrive.  The high school students whose brains are primed for late-night thinking drag themselves through morning classes like zombies.  They’ll be midway through first period before the sun rises.  Their teachers glance derisively at their slumped and scruffy forms and call them lazy.


Eventually, humans invented language.  Much later, we invented writing.  Much, much later, we invented the printing press, and then written words became so widely accessible that most humans could benefit from learning how to read.

Of course, reading is easier for people who are inattentive to their environment.

If I had been born earlier in human evolution, I totally would have been lion bait.  When I’m reading a book, or am deep in thought, the rest of the world melts away.  When I’m typing at home, K or the kids sometimes shout my name several times before I even realize that I’m being spoken to. 

People like me, or this kid at a library, totally would’ve been lion bait.

Luckily for me, I wasn’t born way back then.  Instead I was born into a world where inattentive people – the people best able to block out the world and instead focus on their own thoughts – are the most likely to find academic success.  People like me become medical doctors.  Then we get to name the world’s various conditions and maladies.

And so, when it came time to categorize the sort of person who is especially attentive to the world, people like me (who obviously thought that our way of being is the best way to be) referred to those others as having an attention deficit disorder.

Identifying those people’s awareness of their environs might sound like a virtue; instead, we castigated those people’s difficulty at ignoring the world.

I’ve never read the Percy Jackson books, but I’m glad that they exist, if only for passages like this (from The Lightning Thief):

“And the ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom.  That’s your battlefield reflexes.  In a real fight, they’d keep you alive.  As for the attention problems, that’s because you see too much, Percy, not too little.”


Childhood trauma can cause symptoms that medical doctors term “attention deficit disorder.”  Which makes sense – if you’ve gone through an experience where your environs were threatening, you should learn to be more aware of your environment.  It should become more difficult to ignore a world that has proven itself to be dangerous.

Even for somebody with my type of brain, it’s going to be easier to sit outside and read a book when there’s a squirrel nearby than if there’s a prowling grizzly fifteen meters away.

Some children have to learn early on that daddy’s sometimes a grizzly.  And if it can happen to him, why not other grown-ups, too?  Best to stay on high alert around the teacher.  She’s trying to get you absorbed in these number tables … but what if that’s a trap?


Certain drugs can narrow a person’s perception of the world.  They act like blinders, chemicals like nicotine, ritalin, and amphetamines, both un-methylated (sold under the trade name Adderall) and methylated (a CH3 group attached to the amine moiety of Adderall will slow its degradation by CYP2D6 enzymes in the liver, increasing the duration of its effects).

Note to non-chemists: the methylated analogue of Adderall goes by several names, including “ice,” “shard,” and “crystal meth.”  Perhaps you’ve heard of it — this compound played a key role in the television show Breaking Bad.  And it’s very similar to the stuff prescribed to eight year olds.  Feel free to glance at the chemical structures, below.

In poetry class last week, a man who has cycled in and out of jail several times during the few years I’ve taught there – who I’d said “hello” to on the outside just a few weeks earlier when he rode his bicycle past the high school runners and me – plonked himself down in the squeaky plastic hair next to mine.

I groaned.

“I know, I know,” he said.  “But I might be out on Monday.”

“What happened?”

“Failed a urine screen.  But I was doing good.  Out for six months, and they were screening me like all the time, I only failed three of them.”

“With … ?”

“Meth,” he said, nodding.  “But I wasn’t hitting it bad, this time.  I know I look like I lost some weight, dropped from 230 down to 205, but that’s just cause it was hard getting enough to eat.  Wasn’t like last time.  I don’t know if you remember, like, just how gaunt my whole face looked when they brought me in.  But, man, it’s just … as soon as I step outside this place, my anxiety shoots through the roof … “

This is apparently a common phenomenon.  When we incarcerate people, we carve away so much of their experience of the world.  Inside the jail, there is a set routine.  Somebody is often barking orders, telling people exactly what to do.  There aren’t even many colors to be distracted by, just the white-painted concrete walls, the faded orange of inmate scrubs, the dull tan CO shirts and dark brown pants.

The world in there is bleak, which means there are very few choices to make.  Will you sit and try to listen to the TV?  (The screen is visible from three or four of the twelve cells, but not from the others.)  Try, against all odds, to read a book?  Or add your shouting voice to the din, trying to have a conversation (there’s no weather, so instead the fall-back topic is speculating what’s going to be served for dinner)?

After spending time locked up, a person’s ability to navigate the wider world atrophies, the same as your leg would if you spent months with it bundled up in a cast.

And these are people whom we should be helping to learn how to navigate the world better.

“ … so I vape a lot, outside.  I step out of this place, that’s the first thing I do, suck down a cigarette.  And, every now and then … “

He feels physically pained, being so attentive to his surroundings.  And so he doses himself with chemicals that let him ignore the world as well as I can.

And, yes.  He grew up with an abusive stepfather.  This led to his acting squirrelly in school.  And so, at ten years old, medical doctors began dosing him with powerful stimulants.

Meanwhile, our man dutifully internalized the thought that he had a personal failing.  The doctors referred to his hyper-vigilance as an attention deficit disorder.


Words have power.

We can’t know now, after all the hurt we’ve piled on him, but think: where might our man be if he’d learned to think of his attentiveness as a virtue?

On names (specifically, my own).

2681579791_3d7cf96966What’s that thing Shakespeare wrote about roses?  Something about thorns, right?  Drat those awful thorns!

We live in a pretty small town, where there are 30 or so grocery stores, maybe 10 or so “good” ones, and whichever we pick there’s a decent chance somebody shopping or working there will recognize us and stop to chat.  Bloomington is big enough to have multiple killer libraries (our town library is wonderful, and the university has a huge collection distributed between the main library and several specialty collections), but small enough to know a lot of people’s names.

There are a fair number that I end up going by in this town, though.

Coach Brown: this one is most common, it seems.  Which is somewhat surprising — I only volunteer with the running teams twice a week now that we have a kid — unless you pair the scanty volunteering with my being preternaturally shy.  That helps explain why the majority of people I know would be from structured encounters.

Doctor Brown: I don’t interact professionally with many other scientists these days (and no way is a buddy calling me up to ask about a technique going to say “doctor”), so this one is used only by K, and by people who work at our bank, and by N’s best friend’s father when he’s making fun of me for being unable to use basic technology.  “Shall I show you how to plug it in, Doctor Brown?”

Mister Brown: used by teacher’s at K’s school (they call her “Doctor Milks,” but she has a job.  Why would a doctor be sitting at home reading books all day?), and by my voicemail answering machine (the message was recorded for me by a friend shortly before I finished college; my family came into buckets of money that year and my parents gave me a cell phone.  And a car.  And a warm blanket — my roommate and I kept our apartment pretty cold, so before then I’d only been able to fall asleep while still wearing all my clothes).

Frank: this is what K calls me, and my parents (although their version often appends an “ie”), and our handful of friends in town.  It has both upsides and downsides, as far as names go.  I like the etymology, and think honesty is a good virtue to strive for.  But I wish I could pronounce it better.  I have a bit of a speech impediment that’s not so bad when I’m well-rested but flares up when I’m tired.  The speech therapist who interviewed every student in second grade specifically mentioned my difficulty with F R sounds after she jotted out a note recommending I be sent to her once a week for the rest of the year.  I was supposed to take that note to my teacher; instead I wadded it and tossed it in the trash.  For many problems, like bills and court summonses and the like, that solution doesn’t work.  In my, case it did.  As in, my teacher never knew to send me, the therapist never came to find me.  But my solution failed in that I never fixed my pronunciation, and one minor source of awkwardness is that whenever you meet people, you’re supposed to say your own name.  So I’m bad at introductions because I’m always worried that I’ll mess that part up.

Mister Frank: used only by my mother.

Doctor Frank: used only by my mother when she’s making fun of me.

Karen: used by debt collectors over the telephone.  Someone named Karen must’ve written down my number once.  It has been very difficult trying to convince those (beleaguered, underpaid, but also extremely annoying) telephonic representatives of whichever credit agency is upset with Karen that she isn’t me.  Might not help that I’ve been claiming to be a man but my voice is higher than K’s (and possibly higher than our daughter’s).

Mister Milks: used by high school students who don’t run track or cross country.  This one always makes K happy to hear.

Mister Cloud: used by researchers at the child psychology studies that N participates in (each time she goes, they give her a book!).  Although this probably does look like my true surname when my name is written down.  I’m a feminist and have never liked the tradition of children preserving only their father’s surname.  But, c’mon; would you give a kid the last name Milks?  And conferring K’s name would perpetuate the same problem of treating only a single parent’s contribution to be worth celebrating.  That’s why we thought N should have a new one…

(and, simply in terms of ritual, I liked the fact that it was after we expanded our family rather than after a wedding that K and I spent an afternoon at the courthouse — I kept chittering, “It’s like my driver’s license is getting a tattoo!”  Not that K and I had a wedding.  We bought a plane ticket for my little brother to fly out to California, we stood in front of a woman who collects skulls and would’ve been holding one while officiating if only we’d let her know in advance, we were pronounced legally married.  Then they drove me back to work, I changed back into my dirtiest shirt — do other people practice olfactory warfare against their advisors near the end of their Ph.D.s? — they waited until my workday was done, then we ate tacos, my brother and I played in a Magic cards draft, K did her grading.  Bam!  Officially married!  Let our tax savings commence!)

…and we picked the name Cloud for her.  Clouds are cool, right?  And, sure, normally I like Latinate-derived words, whereas this one is from old English for a lump of dirt, but all the Latinate cloud words, things like “nubilate” (for when “obfuscate” isn’t pretentious enough), to me are too strongly associated with “nubile” to be suitable name words (also, seriously, OED?  You’re letting me down here — I have the 1971 four-up edition and its “nubile” definition is all about marriageability, no mention of sexuality or attraction.  And no explication of the etymology, that before marriage a bride’s face should be nubilated with veil).

Doctor Cloud: I have heard this one only once, used by a telemarketer selling life insurance.  Silly telemarketer; I love insurance!  Of course I already had a policy.

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p.s. K has since pointed out that the use of “nubile” to denote sexual attraction is a recent development. This usage is so dominant now that I foolishly failed to consider that it might not have been established by 1971.  Indeed, the earliest citations given in more recent editions of the OED date to 1973.  And I don’t know what to make of the fact that sexual attractiveness is associated with slenderness in all the early “nubile” citations — as per Naomi Wolf’s thesis in The Beauty Myth, maybe it’s reasonable to think that the forward push of women’s rights during the same time period is responsible.  As women’s choices were less constricted by societal forces, they became more constricted by male gaze.  And it feels strange, perusing the dictionary, to see that constriction paired with a cloud-derived word about sexiness — given the cloud association, wouldn’t it be reasonable for “nubile” to make one think first of a zaftig-type beauty?

Although my own mind gets too tangled in knotty remembrances for that to arise first in my conscious mind.  Because once I start thinking about clouds and zaftig beauty, a passage from Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (translated by Alfred Binbaum) worms into my mind: “Your plain fat woman is fine. Fat women are like clouds in the sky. They’re just floating there, nothing to do with me. But your young, beautiful, fat woman is another story. I am demanded to assume a posture toward her. I could end up sleeping with her. That is probably where all the confusion comes in.”

Which, again, is hard.  Murakami doesn’t accentuate that his other beautiful female characters are slender — he doesn’t have to, since the pairing is so ingrained in most readers’ minds by our recent years’ advertising culture.  To the point where using the word “nubile” to describe a woman might well conjure, in many people’s minds, the image of someone who appears sexually immature, i.e., the exact opposite of what the word used to mean.

In any case, “Cloud” seemed like a better surname for our daughter than anything derived from “nubes.”