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.


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.”

On Y chromosomes, surnames, and reproduction.

On Y chromosomes, surnames, and reproduction.

Invisible-History-Human-Race_Author-ImageFor me, the most interesting section of Christine Kenneally’s “The Invisible History of the Human Race” was the section on Y chromosomes.  Because, sure, if I’d spent a moment thinking about it I would have realized that sons of sons of sons carry the same Y chromosomes as their forebears… but it isn’t something I’d bothered thinking about.

But the connection that was most interesting for me – and, yeah, also retrospectively obvious – was that in a patriarchally-named society, surnames will make the same journey as Y chromosomes.

They are coupled throughout time, in ways that researchers have investigated for, say, Scottish clans: a sort of scientific validation for the lineage claims that even in modern times are accompanied by property rights.  From Kenneally’s book:

“It wasn’t until 1957 that the ancient chiefly Arms were finally officially recorded.  Donald’s father assembled a significant amount of evidence to prove that he was in fact descended from the last known MacLaren chief, and he presented it to the Court of the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh, the Scottish heraldic authority that rules on title and is famously rigorous in its judgement.  The court decreed that Donald’s father had indeed descended from the last-known chief of Clan MacLaren.  When he was made chief, he acquired the legal title to some of the clan lands at Balquhidder that had been lost a few centuries earlier, including the famous Creag an Tuirc, the Clan’s rallying point from earliest times.  When he died in 1966, his three golden feathers were passed on to his eleven-year-old son, now the twenty-fifth chief since Labhran.”

Obviously the evidence presented at the time, as described in the above paragraph, did not include DNA testing – but apparently the MacLarens have been quite involved in DNA testing recently, and current results correlate with the prior historical claims.

The interesting thing to me is that names, and land, and Y chromosomes, all traveled together.  There has long been the sense that sons are special – even in western cultures, where to me it has not seemed like sons provide for their aging parents any better late in life than daughters do – with the idea that some special spark is passed from fathers to their sons.  And the journey of names reflects that.

And, right – now might be a reasonable time to mention that when K and I married, neither of us changed our names.  And we gave N a surname distinct from either of ours.  I am not particularly keen on the idea of patriarchy, and didn’t want to make my own contribution to that system of beliefs by giving my daughter her father’s name.  And, sure, some people pass along a mother’s name instead, but I personally don’t feel like the solution to a patriarchy is to institute practices that we’d have in a matriarchy…although in the short term it does seem reasonable.

(Like, okay, affirmative action in hiring – I assume that most people think that in an ideal world, employers wouldn’t care about your ethnicity and so affirmative action would not be needed.  But given that you can find numerous studies on racist hiring decisions – every few years there are articles about the effect of stereotypically black names in America, and here is a similar study on the effect of African/Arabic names on hiring decisions in Sweden – it seems like affirmative action is definitely still a worthwhile policy in many countries.

And that’s in cases where there is an equivalence between CVs, etc., between people with different names.  You could make a much stronger argument by suggesting that employers should care most about a person’s ability to make the best of their circumstances, or overcome challenges, so if race were correlated with a difference in material advantages at birth, you’d not only want to preference minority applicants with equivalent CVs, but also those who might appear slightly worse based on numerically-documented facts on a job application.)

So, N has a new name.  She does have some amount of my genetic material, though.  Almost 50%.  So there’s that.

Although you could make an argument for using more of the trappings of matriarchy in cultural decisions.  Especially as reproductive science moves forward – it isn’t difficult to imagine a world that doesn’t need men.  Which isn’t just a joke, although I do recall their being a good joke-y treatment of this in a dialogue at the beginning of “Roger Dodger.”  Because you can produce mammalian offspring without the aid of men  – yeah, you need to deliver the genetic material in a laboratory instead of having it be carried by sperm, but is that such a big cost?  Already many couples in the U.S. employ the help of laboratory personnel for reproduction.

And, yes, recently it’s proven possible to engender children with the nuclear genetic material of two males, but this technique still requires a mother to carry the embryo, and a female to provide the egg (and the mitochondrial DNA, although presumably you could develop a technique to displace the mother’s mitochondria with those of one of the fathers).  So you could have a world without men, and humans would be able to propagate, but at the moment a world without women wouldn’t work.

(Bonus parenthetic insert!  Because I already have one exceedingly-long parenthetical inserts in this essay already – why not another one?

Many of those laboratory techniques to aid in reproduction were developed by men, and many of the doctors implementing them are men.  So is it unreasonable to think that this may have influenced the remunerations received by sperm donors, which are relatively high given the low risks and low time input after initial screening, versus those received by women, which are pretty crappy… crappy in a way reminiscent of the low prices flowing to organ donors.  Egg donors, like organ donors, tend to be impoverished and relatively un-educated.  And it seems that there has been collusion on the part of medical providers to keep compensation low.  From Kimberly Krawiec’s analysis of gamete markets:

“In February 1998, the Saint Barnabas Medical Center in New Jersey set off a firestorm of controversy when it placed advertisements in several New York-area publications offering potential egg donors $5000, twice the $2500 that the center had been paying.  The firestorm was provoked not because Saint Barnabas proposed to pay egg donors for their services, which it and other fertility clinics had been doing for years, but because the proposed payment increases were made in violation of an alleged understanding among New York-area fertility centers to pay no more than $2500 for eggs.  The ensuing debate (during which many fertility doctors openly discussed the need to control egg prices) quickly garnered newspaper and other media attention, and generated arguments in major medical journals.”)

And yet, despite the fact that reproduction from women alone is much more reasonable than reproduction from men alone, the production of offspring from men appears much more often in mythology.  There’s Zeus, creating Athena from his head.  A similar story associated with the Ramayana, in which Ravana created Sita with a sneeze.

Presumably men throughout time have felt bad about their limited role in propagation of the species and created stories to celebrate that men could have an important role… they just often don’t.

And there are others: Shiva created a mountain range by ejaculating onto the ground.  The sage Bharadwaja saw a beautiful woman bathing and ejaculated into a basket, creating his son Drona.

Which, right, scientifically seems ridiculous – children arising from spilt sperm?  Eggs, maybe… but sperm?  So naturally I had to include the phenomenon in my work.  As a twist on the very-real possibility of a world propagated by women alone, and a nod to the underlying mythology.