Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Problem with Introductions: Saying My Name

After all these years I still feel awkward when telling someone my name. In fact, it doesn't have to be an actual person. I feel just as uncomfortable telling a machine my name, like when the teleporter asks me to state my name and business before teleporting me. Weird, huh?

I don't know what it is. Maybe it's based in the ancient beliefs that a person's name has power. I bet that's it. I bet some primitive part of my brain hears the question, "What's your name," and responds with the urge to cast a hex on the person who's asking. The golem in me hisses and recoils, lashing out with clawed fingers, whispering magical spells of destruction, laughing manaically, prompting me to NOT tell them my name.

The normal part of my brain laughs, though I notice a choked feeling in my throat as I lean forward and whisper the syllables. That never goes over well, of course, because they can't hear me and then I have to say it again. So I've learned (at least I've done that) that it's better to say it confidently and loudly. For the entire room to hear. Usually this approach earns me suspicious glances. But at least I don't have to repeat my name several times over.

Oh, but I do. The cafe where I spend my lunches has a surprisingly high turnover. Over the past few years I'm sure I've shared my name with enough people to rival only my years in college. As we all know, the most common questions heard around a university are "What's your major?" and "What's your name?" The former never felt so awkward to answer. A major is merely a shirt you put on every day, while your name is as good as your underclothes. Sharing it, you might as well be handing over the last bit of your dignity.

"Oh, you want to know my name? Here, why don't I also tell you about the time in elementary school when my so-called friends de-pantsed me on the playground. While I'm at it, let me describe the horror of having my love poem about Mark Smith read to the entire fourth grade class*."  

I know, I know, telling someone my name isn't as bad as getting pantsed at school. It shouldn't be anyway. I'm simply using it as a metaphor to express the vulnerable feeling that comes over me any time I'm asked to share it.

I'm thinking about hiring someone to follow me around, an entourage if you will, who can chime in any time someone asks me to tell them my name. They will speak for me when necessary.    
"What's your name again?"
I nod over my shoulder, cueing my entourage.  
A chorus of voices, "Nicole. Her name is Nicole." They could even say it kind of sing-songy if they want, like the choruses of the ancient Greek tragedies.
I smile confidently** and wink. The person who's just been bludgeoned with a chorus singing my name blinks repeatedly, dumbfounded at the large entourage of robed actors behind me (notice how my entourage continues to swell and transform more and more into a Greek chorus. Soon they'll be wearing strange makeup and sharing secrets to help the audience understand the drama and inner workings of my soul.)   

It would be so fantastic, you know, to never ever have to introduce myself again. I know the obvious answers to my problem are to never meet anyone I'm not already familiar with or to begin wearing a name-tag. Another solution would be to become extremely ridiculously famous OR infamous, whatever comes first.  

But I'd rather have a Greek chorus following me around.  I might even discover some newfound confidence about how awesome my name is due to hearing it sung as I stand in the midst of a large mass of chanters.

The chorus would come in handy in so many settings, like when I'm trying to order food in a noisy restaurant. That way I also wouldn't make embarrassing mistakes like accidentally ordering the shrimp when I hate shrimp. This happened--I must have been thinking really hard about what I didn't want. As in, I hate shrimp. Why would anyone order shrimp. It's horrible. Never. Never EVER will I EVER order shrimp. "And for you?" the server asks. "Um, I'll have the shrimp."

If I had a chorus with me, I'd merely have to nod at them when the server arrives to take my order. They'd know all my desires, being privy to my thoughts, and most likely they wouldn't accidentally order the shrimp (thought they COULD since sometimes I think of fanciful things I don't really want, like an entire cheesecake).  

A chorus would also be really perfect in a conflict. I imagine they'd chip in when it began to look like I was losing, and then I'd win.  

The possibilities are limitless. And this is what comes from struggling to share my name with people: I end up with a Greek chorus trailing me. Beautiful.

*This never happened.  Mark Smith is a generic name I made up.  
**Confident because I didn't have to say my name, which always weakens me a little.....            

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Voice of the Web: Real Loud and Real Obnoxious

Everything feels the same.

Is it just me or is this true?

The problem is the Internet, the Web, this mechanical interface with everything. And it has bled over into things in the real world, like with the way I relate to people.

Or perhaps it began happening with the advent of television. The first real mechanical separation of humans with the reality of interpersonal relationships.

I'm tired of clever. I'm tired of witty retorts, sarcasm, the brutality of cold humor, the detachment of knowing causes have effects. What I mean by that—the detachment of cause and effect—is the understanding that if I do or say A, B will happen. Like, for a totally generic example, if at home with my parents, I say some witty, clever, sarcastic remark such as, "Well, if you hadn't gotten pregnant at 17, perhaps you'd have a Corvette by now," there will be specific ramifications*. It won't be a funny sitcom. There won't be a laugh track where the audience responds by chuckling in unison and I am heralded as a comedienne extraodinaire. In fact, people in my immediate life will begin to see me as an ass.

This is perhaps a poor example, because the problem is much more advanced. Occasionally when I'm around certain people, I get the feeling everything is about the big joke. The perfect timing. The script in their head where everything happening is the set up for the punch-line. It could be that I've somehow, miraculously gotten MORE sensitive as I've advanced in age, though that seems unlikely. The longer I'm alive, the more rooted I feel to this world. (At first I mistakenly wrote out rotted. Freudian slip?) And the less things surprise me.

So it surprises me when I grow weary of the brutal nature of the Web. Who's with me? I'd really appreciate an acknowledgement here if anyone, ANYONE AT ALL, senses what I sense.

It isn't as though I spend an unholy amount of time surfing the Web. I do a lot of research. Read a lot of Wikipedia articles, articles, reviews, and just recently, have subscribed to a few sites through Google Reader. The sites are rather generic tech/gadget reviews, science fiction and fantasy commentaries, and for the most part, I find them interesting.

But there is a tone to all that's out there. I'm having a difficult time pinpointing what it is. I could be full of crap, but I could just as well be identifying a cultural malaise. Some might describe it as an advancement—I can see that. Finally! they would say, we've arrived at the future. We're here, all is open, all is possible, we're speeding toward this singularity where we'll become infinite and immortal through science.

Maybe the Miscrosoft Bing commercials aren't that off. From time to time I feel like my mind is fractured and I'm trying to sort through the hundreds of strands of thought, attempting to make sense of them, to grasp something solid. I don't think it's to be found in my head—everything is abstract there.

What I need is to step away from the mechanical, electronic interfaces with the world and engage in something real. I need to work in the garden. Take a walk by the river. Go for a hike. The Web, or Internet, whatever the crap it's called, becomes a voice in the head that won't be silenced, that influences behavior and perhaps in a negative way.  

I tire of its plethora of voices—voices that don't always help me see reason or sort through the mess of the human condition. All things tend to converge, and I don't necessarily see them converging into a whole that I can treasure the way I treasure a favorite book (Jane Eyre, Angle of Repose, We). It usually happens that we veer toward the most common denominator, and I don't have much faith that this number will be the one I want.  

*There would be no REAL reason to say this, as it isn't true in my family. But I could see this kind of thing happening in a sitcom, can't you?

Friday, June 04, 2010

My Visit to Rowan Oak, OR How to Magically Ruin a Pair of Expensive Jeans

Memorial Day weekend was great, until we got to Memphis. Then everything went to hell real quick. 
But first.....

Rowan Oak.  

Mississippi is humid, just like all swamps in the south. The strange thing about humidity is that when you add air conditioning to the picture, it can get cold. So naturally I wore a pair of jeans while we we drove from Tupelo to Oxford to not catch a chill in air conditioned rental car—an Impala. Oh yeah, we went all out for this road trip.  

These jeans really are quite awesome. I purchased them recently and I happen to look like a million bucks when I wear them. It's been a while since I felt or looked like a million bucks, so this causes me to strut around with a confidence no one has seen on me in years.  

And if I don't, in fact, look like a pile of glittering diamonds in the jeans, the important thing is that I feel like one. As I proved long ago, if you feel it, it must be true.  

We arrived at Rowan Oak in Oxford and Stoker drove down a gravel driveway and parked beside a trailhead. We didn't know where we were, exactly. The area is quite forested and you can't just see where you should go (especially if you drive down the little gravel road and don't simply park on the street).  

So we didn't talk to anyone after we got out of the car. Stoker looked at the little sign at the trailhead which read, "Bailey's Woods" or something and informed us that the trail was a quarter mile and it ended in the museum parking lot. Faulkner, the sign read, used to enjoy taking walks in this forest to think about his work. 

If Faulkner did it, we had to do it.

"Let's take this trail.  It ends in the parking lot," Stoker said. Obviously we assumed the museum parking lot meant the parking lot of Rowan Oak. Since we hadn't been up to the house (we didn't know where it was, in fact), we figured museum meant Faulkner's house. Duh. Of course. It's open to the public and is no longer a house, therefore is really a museum. Makes sense. 

Still wearing my jeans and a pair of very comfortable Born wedge heel sandals (I never wear wedge heels, but this pair of jeans requires them), we headed down the trail. At that point, it was quite cool for Mississippi at the end of May. So I thought it'd be fine to wear jeans for a hike (there was a pair of shorts in the car).

What most people don't know about these parts of the South, at least I didn't until I lived here, is that there are many forests. Oh sure, you knew that, right, because you've watched lots of reenactments of the Civil War. You've seen stuff about the deep south. You know that there are towering evergreens all over and crazy vines taking over the whole place and you realize these things because you pay attention and read many books and watch countless hours of television.  

Ok well, I'm constantly in awe, even as a resident of four years. I keep forgetting that the South isn't all about magnolias. These forests are thick and kind of scary and when I'm in them, I begin to understand the fear the Puritans had of them and their darknesses. I also begin to see the influence the landscape had on Faulkner and his writing. Anyway, that thing you learned as a kid, about the moss growing on the north side of the tree trunk?  That's true here. Because you can't get your orientation in the forest by the sun or the mountains. So bring a compass.

The trail in the Rowan Oak forest was nice. At first. It was shady and we were there early enough that the temperature was kind of cool. We plodded along, laughing, joking, swatting at mosquitoes and leaping away from enormous spiders. Spots of sunlight filtered through the canopy of leaves and we'd stare up at the towering trees with their sculpted trunks, mouths agape. I think Stoker got tired of me pointing and saying, "Holy crap, look at the tree!"  

A few minutes into the forest and I began to hear disembodied laughter, like someone nearby was having a pool party . . . or something. . . . The trail split—we took the one with fresh footprints (were those hoof-prints?). We began to feel lost. My footwear was horrible so I tripped several times.  

Soon the air grew stifling and swampy. Or more swampy, anyway. Stoker laughed at my stride. Never one to be deterred at creepy laughter in the woods, he continued to take pictures and reassure me that the trail hadn't already gone a quarter of a mile.  

"This is WAY longer than a quarter of a mile. I think we've gone two miles already," I said.

"No way. Our block in the city is a half-mile. We haven't gone that far yet," he said, laughing.

"Not a chance. We've gone way further than a quarter mile and we're not even to the end yet."

"Why are you walking like that? Walk normal," he said, snapping a picture of me on a bridge over a huge grotto filled with trolls.

"What's wrong with the way I'm walking?" I asked, paying the toll. The trolls demanded a fruit roll-up.  Luckily I had one.  

"You're waddling," Stoker answered, glaring at the toll-taking troll for taking the last fruit roll-up. Stoker loves gummy candy and fruit snacks like that.  

"It's hot.  I'm sweating.  My jeans are shrinking." The troll loped away and joined his clan beneath the bridge, and I wiped the stream of sweat from my forehead. I'd turned into a fountain.  

To prove his point, Stoker showed me a picture of myself mid-stride. I looked like I'd just ridden a hundred miles on horseback.  

My jeans WERE shrinking. It was so humid and hot, it was like living inside a washing machine and a dryer at the same time.  

We continued on. The disembodied laughter kept getting louder. There were red toadstools with white spots on the edge of the trail. It was hard to breathe. The floor of the forest was littered with creepy fern-like plants out of the jurassic era (or at least the movie Jurassic Park). I began to threaten the makers of the trail with lawsuits about false advertising and bad trail management. They could have at least put signs out for the proper route, AND a warning about the trolls* would have been really helpful. 

Finally we came to the end of the trail. I could barely walk. My jeans had shrunk four sizes and I only managed to move by thrusting my legs backwards and lurching forward in a wind-up motion (see? using the material's natural restrictive tendency to propel myself.  Clever, eh?). I was certain the leather sandals had carved blisters into my pinky toes. But the end was in sight and hopefully an air conditioned house/museum.

HOWEVER, the end of the trail was followed by a short walk through an ugly meadow to the campus of the University of Mississippi. The Museum was a real museum. Betty's museum, or someone like that. 

Rage filled me, I heard a loud tearing noise and the skin of my legs was suddenly visible through the fabric of my jeans. Luckily, the campus was a ghost-town, being Sunday on Memorial Day weekend, so no one but Stoker saw my transformation into the Incredible Hulk.  

Rowan Oak, Faulkner's home, was on the other side of the forest and the trail. We turned around.

*By the way, there were no trolls. I put that in to wake you up. If there had been trolls, I think we'd have gotten a much different body of work from Faulkner.