22 September 2010

On Naming, Part 2

The UPS man just left. My office receives packages for the entire building, and it’s one of my favorite parts of this job. A child could do it, but it’s satisfying -- the smell of the Sharpie, writing out the names in my good cursive in the log book and then on the notification slips. (Really I like just about any task where I get to use my good handwriting.) And I like the names themselves. Here, they’re deliciously diverse. Spanish, Fillipino, Nigerian, Ghanaian, Ethiopian, Romanian, etc. I like that I know how to pronounce them and know off the top of my head whom they belong to, most of the time.

I keep a draft e-mail to no one in my Gmail account full of all the funny or resonant names of the fake people who send me spam, purveyors of Vi@gra and Genuine Ro1ex Watches. The fabulous Fabius Akins. Poor Jean P. Conklin and Quincy G. Law, stuffy souls who mean well. Those mysterious and vaguely foreign ladies Wilhelmina Salvemini and Liliana Blondell.

As a child I was a little god, drawing casts of characters out of thin air, then drawing maps of cities for them to live in, the floor plans of their homes, writing out their relationships to one another. It was all like the front matter for a series of unwritten Russian novels. True, the dramatis personae might have made for an oddly lopsided narrative: my creatures were almost always girls, mostly my age or a little older. Boys were boring to draw, and it was hard to differentiate between them. (I also had trouble keeping the male characters straight watching old black-and-white movies --all those suits and fedoras. I’m still not great with faces -- recently I took one of those online tests to determine whether you might have prosopagnosia and scored on the very lowest edge of normal. It’s not as if there’s any cure, anyway.) One of the best gifts I received was the Babysitter’s Club board game, not because the game was any fun -- it was so boring I don’t think we made it through a single round-- but because the game board was a map of Stoneybrook, the town where they all lived. (A name still apparently in the ready reference section of my memory, with its nice proximity to “Storybook.” Way to go, Ann M. Martin.) I could imagine my own characters running through the backyards, visualize the routes they’d take to get to school.

Today, I’m drawn to maps as other people are, helplessly, to any nearby television screen. At night while I wait for sleep, I sometimes pass the time by naming the streets of Chicago in order, Howard to Roosevelt, Michigan out into the alphabet. The rational comprehensibility of Chicago appealed to me when I was considering a move to somewhere I’d never even stayed the night.

I realize that this all may sound profoundly dull -- other kids probably invented worlds full of dragons and duchesses and space aliens. I did some of that too, I guess, but mostly I conjured up the world in which I already lived. It struck me early that we would not have all this forever, so I snuggled up in the texture of the actual and the mundane. How bland, to have been born a writer of realistic fictions.

People who believe in an afterlife may find fantasy more readily at hand, I don’t know. For me, this life is all I’ve got, and I’m constantly bumping up against the limits of my own narrow experience. Even this, here, now, is so frustratingly vast, far beyond one person’s power to know firsthand. You have to get into it in other ways. So I make lists and maps and songs and stories, keeping tabs on the real and the possible until it slips away.

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