Wednesday, August 24, 2005

By any Other Name.

There is a young lady standing in front of my counter; clinically speaking, a fascinating series of events is taking place. The twin clusters of cells that are my eyes are perceiving her dimensions, in their primitive and deeply limited capacity to perceive space and color. They are sending messages to the ancient, instinctive part of my brain called the amygdala. The message they are sending can be roughly translated thus: this is a female of your species, of adequate height, with large, bright eyes, indicating perception and inquisitiveness. Its round, full hips and round, full breasts, respectively, indicate excellent childbearing and childrearing capacity. Her colorful decorative attire suggests good grooming status, an excellent ploy to attract mates and keep offspring free from disease and infection.

The newfangled, oh-so-clever part of my brain called the cerebral cortex translates this information into other words so that I can comfort myself by thinking that I am more than a monkey wishing to pass on its monkey genetic material. It gives me a slightly more refined message: there’s a hot, brown-eyed, brunette, nineteen-year-old college girl with a unique, funky sartorial sense about her, standing in front of me looking to buy a pack of cigarettes.

“Thank you Shandra,” my thorax intones, in a voice deep and soothing, looking to allay fears that corrupt so many wild mating opportunities. My cerebral cortex has translated markings on the piece of plastic she has handed me, cleverly inferring her age and name from them. “That’s a very pretty name.”

Okay, enough of the National Geographic version of this story, for a moment.

Shandra (pronounced “Shohn-drah”), as I hand her I.D. back, perks up immediately. “You said it right!”

That’s because I’m not a drooling moron, I think to myself, and I can add one letter to “Sandra,” and take the wild guess that it’s probably going to be pronounced the same way. But she is clearly flattered by my use of her name, a trick I figured out a while back, because people always are. They get attached to their names, are happy when they are used, take joy when people approve of them, and are saddened when their names are not often used or not approved of.

I’m gonna let the whole world in on something that it is probably completely unaware of: that’s the same thing dogs think about their names.

We don’t name ourselves, after all. Our parents give them to us shortly after birth, to satisfy a legal requirement, but more importantly to train us to come when called, to have a presupposed means to get our attention. Over time, as our brains mature and acquire greater intelligence, we come to associate our names, and the tone of voice which pronounces them, with attention, with food, with affection, with reward, just like Spot and Rover associate their names with Jerky Treats and someone stroking their fur. When our dads were angry, we instinctively knew it from the sound of his voice and concluded that perhaps flight might be a safer response than obedience, just as our dogs pick up on the apprehension in our voices when we call their names but they hear “bath time” in the way that we’ve called it.

William Shakespeare, a smart monkey from 400 years ago, had an interesting take on the issue, from the perspective of a young woman talking about a young man’s name that she wasn’t supposed to like. We might all be wise to listen:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,
Nor arm nor face, nor any other part,
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.

What people don’t realize is that their names are simply words, with a communicative, rhetorical value identical to any other word—a name for a thing, and not the thing itself. I can prove this easily enough: if I say that the word “car” is a stupid, ugly word, and that I have no problem with the vehicles themselves but simply dislike the sound of the word, no one but perhaps a few deeply neurotic linguists and engineers are going to get upset as a consequence. It’s only a word, after all. Next I say that I think the words “Jennifer” or “Kristine” or “Mark” are stupid, ugly words, and watch a bunch of agitated monkeys work themselves into a tizzy over it. None of them had any idea how deeply their programming ran, how utterly brainwashed and indoctrinated they are, until that moment. I can say I don’t like the word “Dan,” and Bob doesn’t get upset, but Dan does. How ridiculous is that? We’ve taken ownership of something as if it were interwoven into our DNA and not a convenient label that somebody else gave to us, getting hopping mad in defense of a concept as rhetorically neutral as “bag” or “drawer” or “potato.”

But back to the ranch. I flirt with Shandra for a little while longer. I really ought to get a phone number out of this, but I’m not feeling very assertive today, and she’s an awful lot younger than I am. I wouldn’t even be able to take her to the smoky dive bars that medicate my insanity nightly, and hence I’d actually have to employ the imagination to find other things for us to do. Well, besides the obvious one, anyway. I’ve already overthought the matter, of course, but as a man who routinely writes six-page stories about two minutes of work in a gas station, such is my custom.

I let Shandra off the hook of my unbending gaze, and she flits out the door, nervous and blushing. That one was mine but for the asking, I realize. I’m sure she’ll be back, in case I change my mind. But my mass of monkey cells has just exerted magnetic control over hers for a couple of minutes, by the bizarre, primal power of name usage and eye contact.

A friend recently gave me, like a wonderful, unexpected gift, a quote from the wizened Chinese sage Chuang-tzu. I will pass this gift on to others: “When the monkey trainer was handing out acorns, he said ‘You get three in the morning and four at night.’ This made all the monkeys furious. ‘Well then,’ he said, ‘you get four in the morning and three at night.’ The monkeys were all delighted.” Sounds about right to me.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Fog.

A woman rushes into my store shortly after four P.M. on Saturday. She is short and mildly obese, dressed in fashionable office attire. She is in the fog. The fog is a place where we all go sometimes, but some of us live in it perpetually at our own expense. Her eyes are up and to the left, indicating that she is using the conceptual portion of her brain, and probably sees almost nothing of what is transpiring immediately around her. Her breathing is rapid and shallow, signs of hurry and panic. She never once looks at me while tersely barking her order for a pack of cigarettes and a prepaid sum of gasoline. She is miles and days away from here, in a place where she would not even remotely be able to describe the experience she is presently having if asked about later.

I have been playing a game at work, a fun and fascinating exercise that I like to call “prophet.” It is a simple game that anyone can play: it involves quietly, calmly staring at the people in front of you, taking in every bit of information that you can possibly observe about them, drinking in the modulation of pitch and tone in their voices, carefully monitoring the movements and directions of their eyes, perceiving the pace and evenness or unevenness of their breathing. The astounding thing about this game, if one has the patience to play it without distraction, is that the thing, or even the kind and category of thing, that people are going to do next sometimes leaps into the conscious mind before they do it. It’s a bit frightening the first time it happens; after that, it’s kind of a rush. Prophecy: this woman is going to do something harmful or inconvenient to herself before she leaves my station, through her lunatic hurry and inattention.

She heads out to pump three, stabbing wildly at the buttons to find the correct sequence to begin fueling. She is looking away the entire time the gas is pumping. Following thirty seconds or so of this, she suddenly looks toward the nozzle with an unpleasantly surprised expression, hangs up the pump, and comes back into the store. I already know what she is about to say.

“Do you have some paper towels? I just spilled gas down the side of my car.” She has managed to overflow the tank, even though the pump shuts off automatically before this happens, probably because she kept squeezing the handle, refusing to believe that she’d overpaid and would have to come back inside for change.

“There’s a sink with a towel dispenser above it over there to the right,” I reply. “You can use it to wash your hands as well.” She does, before taking extra towels, her change from the prepay, and fleeing out the door. She wildly wipes off her car with the towels, when she could have done so much more effectively with the squeegee right next to her, before heading off into traffic. I would be wholly unsurprised if I found out later that she was involved in a collision on her way home. She is a menace to society in her fog.

Humanity’s capacity for abstract thought is a wonderful ability, one that allows portions of the brain storing memory to combine previous stimuli and imagine new ones, to create prospective new situations from old ones. It is probably the very gift that allows us to be the animal that invents, that creates based upon real and anticipated needs. The potential to imagine, to be somewhere other than where we are, is probably why textiles and power plants and skyscrapers exist. The fog of distraction is, when used properly, not such a bad place to be.

But that fog needs to get checked at the door of the house, before people carry it off into an ephemeral, sometimes dangerous world which deserves and demands full attention. I do everything in my power to shake folks out of it when they come into my store, to give them a hand and raise them from the quicksand: I look into their eyes, ask them questions about their days, their jobs, their families, their clothes, their choice in purchases, their plans for the evening. I want them to turn off the TV in their brains and talk to me; I want to drag them out of the fog so that they can see that the present is a pleasant, air conditioned shop with an interested stranger who sincerely wants to know more about them, and not an invisible point on the line from A to B.

Sometimes I succeed, getting a smile and a confession of what they were busy musing about. Sometimes they have sick or hurt relatives, and need a bit of sympathy, a word of kindness. Sometimes they’re late and think that their hectic, distracted silence will get them somewhere faster than their calm attention will. It won’t, but they believe it will. But mostly I want to help them understand where they were so that they can be here for a moment, and realize that here is nothing to be scared of or averse to, nothing to be avoided but something to be engaged and enjoyed—the Buddhist concept of the past as memory and the future as fiction, with only the now as real.

And sometimes, inevitably, I fail. Two more young women come in later in the shift, chattering excitedly to each other like monkeys. Their bill totals at $11.18. Woman A hands me a 20, ignoring my conversational overtures and looking at the floor, then abruptly decides that it is important that she give me eighteen cents to get an even dollar amount in change. She hits up woman B for coins, and the two of them fish through their purses, digging like dogs mining under fences, while the rapid, meaningless chatter continues and they pool three nickels and three pennies. Woman A’s dancing eyes begin to move toward the door before she hands me the coins.

Prophecy: she is going to try to leave without getting nine dollars back.

By the time I have hit the “cash” button, and procured a five and four ones, she has turned and taken a step toward the exit. I could easily let them both stroll out of here, and let the donation of nine dollars to my drinking fund be her punishment and hence her lesson.

“Excuse me. EXCUSE ME.” I get her attention with the loud one. I hold aloft her change. “Did you want this back?”

“Oh yes I’m sorry I forgot all about it,” she chatters at me rapidly, not hearing or seeing anything that’s happening because her mind is spinning like a red-lined rotary engine, before disappearing with her friend out the door, into the fog.

I hope that there is no Jack the Ripper lurking out there, in that fog. Neither of them would stand a chance.