What’s in a name? Lots apparently

“When you’re a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman named LaKiesha, life can get complicated.” 

So begins an excellent CNN.com story that continues: “Strangers burst out laughing when you tell them your name. Puzzled white people ask what your parents were thinking. Black people wonder if you’re trying to play a bad joke.”

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LaKiesha Francis

The story’s headline is “What it’s like to be a white woman named LaKiesha,” and what follows by reporter John Blake is a probing, provocative account of life for a very white LaKiesha Francis in small-town Ohio because of her exotic birth name, and what it means when a white person has a “black” name and a black person has a “white” name. 

“We hear a lot about what are known as ‘black-sounding’ names these days,” Blake writes. “What LaKiesha has discovered is that the names of Americans are as segregated as many of their lives. There are names that seem traditionally reserved for whites only, such as Molly, Tanner and Connor. And names favored by black parents, such as Aliyah, DeShawn and Kiara. … But when you move through life with a name that violates those racial and ethnic boundaries, LaKiesha has found that people will often treat you as an imposter.”

unnamed-file.jpgFurther proof of name prejudice and name politics is this 2006 ABC report on “whitest” and “blackest” names:

“Studies of résumés found that people with black-sounding names are less likely to get callbacks. ABC put 22 pairs of names to the test, posting identical résumés except for the names at the top. The résumés with the white-sounding names were actually downloaded 17 percent more often by job recruiters than those with black-sounding names.”

Toxic and pernicious, let’s call this what it is: flagrant racism. Both of these articles are so powerful and troubling on their own — do click their links — that I have little of substance to add to them. My reactions are as visceral as intellectual, and putting them into words would likely be messy.

Yet I have my own modest story about appropriating a so-called black name. A long time ago I bought a white and ginger pet rat. I named her LaShonda for no greater reasons than I thought it was cute and cheeky. And fitting. Like her, it was adorable, full of spirit.

But then I started second-guessing the name. What would vets and their receptionists think when I brought in a white rodent named LaShonda? When I told friends her name the response was usually laughter. What had I done? Was I making fun of a black name? Or, as I believed, was I giving my pet the coolest name I could think of? (I thought of changing it, but LaShonda mysteriously died in her cage after only three weeks.)

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This is actually Tammy the rat, but she is practically a twin of the late LaShonda.

Would LaShonda have faced the same backlash LaKiesha Francis does? Would she have been treated as an imposter, her job applications put at the bottom of the pile because of her exotic moniker? Would she have been bullied by other rats? Would she have legally changed her name to Carol or Gertrude? Would she have resented me for putting so much social pressure on her?

“It can be exhausting constantly explaining yourself to white people, even though you’re white,” writes Blake. I believe it. LaKiesha and LaShonda “sound” black, but expectations are upended, confusion reigns and mockery and resentment are possible outcomes.  “A name isn’t just a name, according to history and social science,” Blake says. “Give someone the wrong name and it can become a burden.”

Funerals in the forest

I’ve talked here before about how to dispose of my body after I croak. I have particular, peculiar, deeply secular ideas. First, do not bury me; I am not landfill. Second, do cremate me; you can put my ashes in a curvy hourglass, a swirling snow globe, or a Magic 8 Ball to be shaken for answers to imponderable cosmic queries, such as, “Does Suzy like me?”  

These are some very real alternatives, as well:

* As I’ve written here, Washington State is considering allowing human remains to be disposed of and reduced to soil through composting. It works like this: Decomposing bodies crumble and decay into soil and are dispersed to help flowers and trees thrive. There’s no coffin, no chemicals, no pricey cemetery plot and none of the fossil fuels used in cremation. Eco-ecstasy.

* In another post I described the underwater reef ball, an eco-friendly, reef-building sphere of cement in which your ashes are placed and then sunk to the bottom of the sea. First you’re cremated. Then your ashes are stirred with concrete and shaped into a hollow, hole-pocked reef ball. Resting on the seafloor, its goal is to provide a teeming marine habitat for fish, coral and other sea critters.

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Now there’s another option, which I saw in the Times. “Could Trees Be the New Gravestones?” the headline asks. It’s a bit cryptic, but read on and it’s all about forest funerals. The first thing that popped to mind was hiding a corpse in the woods, throwing some leaves over it, and running. 

But no. This is about a respectable body receptacle, a burial place for human (and pet) ashes deep among towering trees, verdant ferns and Chia-lush moss, a sylvan Eden of mist and dew, deer, butterflies and half-men, half-goats. You want to be buried in beauty, this is your spot.

Better Place Forests, a Bay Area start-up, is “buying forests, arranging conservation easements intended to prevent the land from ever being developed, and then selling people the right to have their cremated remains mixed with fertilizer and fed to a particular tree,” the Times says. (Fed to a particular tree — Mother Nature’s bottomless buffet chomps on.) vc_insidersguidetocaliforniasredwoodcoast_st_rm_ea6f8r_1280x640.jpgIt sounds a lot like Washington State’s human composting proposal, but Better Place Forests seems to have this thing up and rolling with a tree-specific blueprint. The company emailed me this simplified explanation of how its “memorial forests” work:

  1. You choose a tree in one of our private, permanently protected forests.
  2. Under this tree, you spread ashes of family members and pets for generations to come.
  3. Our forests are easy to reach. Your family can visit your tree at any time.

Along with flowers, bring a backpack, picnic spread, bottle of rosé and bug spray.

So far, only two forests are taking cremains: one in Point Arena on the ocean-sprayed coast of Northern California and the dense Santa Cruz Forest, where 6,000 trees are available on 80 acres. Spots in Seattle, Denver, Portland and Flagstaff are in the works.

Dying is easy; paying for it is hard. What’s your budget? What kind of tree do you want to be eaten by? Some of the nitty-gritty (boldface mine):

“Customers come to claim a tree for perpetuity. This now costs between $3,000 (for those who want to be mixed into the earth at the base of a small young tree or a less desirable species of tree) and upward of $30,000 (for those who wish to reside forever by an old redwood). For those who don’t mind spending eternity with strangers, there is also an entry-level price of $970 to enter the soil of a community tree. (Cremation is not included.) A steward then installs a small round plaque in the earth like a gravestone.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m not doing “a less desirable species of tree” (sorry, pine) or the community tree, which smacks of a pauper’s grave — fine for Mozart but not moi. I’m going for it — 30K to snuggle up to an ancient, majestic redwood, a barky skyscraper that kisses the clouds and tickles the sun. That sounds lovely. I’ll be dead, but still.

How strange to be sprinkled at the base of a giant tree in a vast shadow-dappled forest. Will an impish fox come dig me up, uprooting the whole rest-in-peace thing? Might a small-bladdered hiker use my tree as a makeshift urinal? Even stranger, could a fern sprout where my ashes are buried like in the book “Where the Red Fern Grows”?

That would be deliciously nuts — what color would my fern be? — and as surreal, incomprehensible and amazing as death itself.

Now, where do I sign up?

(The company’s video pitch is HERE.)

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“A small round plaque in the earth like a gravestone.” They’re not kidding. That looks to be about the size of a silver dollar.

Random reflections, wryly

I have never done karaoke, and I never will.

I don’t understand runners. I don’t know what in the world they are doing.

Dancing — a faint memory from my roaring twenties that I hope goes away.

Reggae is the devil’s flatulence.

A good, mean rollercoaster mainlines an unparalleled high. 

There is nothing sexier than a comely woman reading a book. 

Cars. I will never get them. They are like refrigerators — necessary appliances.

‘Good dog’ is redundant.

People who purposely don’t travel are unevolved and sad. (And people who say Munich is better than Paris are the most unevolved and most sad.)

Going to the movies alone is the best.

Religion is so radically misunderstood, so repulsively knotted up, we should hit delete and start all over again.

I am constitutionally incapable of playing charades.

Giving money to your alma mater is strictly for suckers.

Unless you’re doing it to a tiny child, the high-five is socially questionable. Fist-bumps — criminal.

There are worse things than tongue piercings. Though I can’t think of anything.

When an adult says they’re “reading” Harry Potter, they’re not really reading at all.

Sushi is sublime. I’ll even eat the grocery store crap.

I‘m thinking of going back to Japan. The more I think about it, the crazier I get.

I have this thing that if someone tells me they don’t read, I want to go back in time to the moment where I hadn’t met them.

Carnivals are disgusting and revolting. I adore everything about them. Even those poor goldfish.

I can’t do the Great Outdoors. It’s the outdoors part that gets me.

I like sharks a lot. If one bit me, it would probably like me too.

Pet rats are like itty-bitty dogs — highly intelligent, funny, trainable, social, responsive. They drink beer and eat anything and, well, everything. Then at about 2-years-old they die and shatter your heart into 10,000 pieces. They’re the best.

If, in a post-apocalyptic world, all sports were wiped out, I wouldn’t care a whit. Take the fans first.

I was thinking of going to a local food festival and parade. Temporary insanity just creeps up on you.

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Good.
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Evil.
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Cool.
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Fool.

The story behind my blog photo

People have asked me if the photograph above this blog is is a screen-shot from Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” as it resembles a scene from that classic 1959 film. It is not.
It is Alfred Eisenstaedt‘s amazing picture of kids at a Parisian puppet show, “Saint George and the Dragon,” at an outdoor theater in 1963.
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Time magazine recently wrote about this enchanting photo:

Capturing the thrill, the shock, the shared triumph-over-evil that the children feel at the very moment when St. George slays the mythical beast, Eisenstaedt’s picture feels as fresh as when it was made, more than 50 years ago.

Here, the picture tells us, is an innocence that can remind even the most jaded of what it was once like to believe, to really believe, in the stories that unfold before our eyes onstage, or onscreen.

The master photographer himself said of this very picture:

“It took a long time to get the angle I liked. But the best picture is the one I took at the climax of the action. It carries all the excitement of the children screaming, The dragon is slain! Very often this sort of thing is only a momentary vision. My brain does not register, only my eyes and finger react. Click.”

A pungent parting shot for ‘Game of Thrones’

“Game of Thrones” is over — thank god.

And yet the chatter sputters on. Fans can’t clam it. Of all the “GOT” noise — a FOMO racket, a bellyaching din — this might be my favorite snippet, courtesy of clear-eyed Washington Post critic Hank Stuever, whose healthy cynicism is gleefully cathartic:

It’s likely you’re already aware of the dissatisfaction with the conclusion tweeted hither and yon — six weeks of nitpicking complaints, first-class nerd whining and an ungodly amount of postgame analyses. Consider all those hastily posted diatribes or that pointless online petition with a million deluded signatures on it, demanding (demanding!) to have Season 8 scrubbed and remade. In some ways, “Game of Thrones” had grown so popular that it made its viewers look embarrassingly out of touch with life itself.

This can only happen when we love our popular culture a little too hard, crossing some line of personal investment, forgetting when a TV show is only just that. It was our fault for coming to regard the show as the apogee of the medium itself.

It’s also why I’m glad some unnamed, unwitting hero left a coffee cup in the camera shot in the episode that aired May 5. That one coffee cup humanized the whole endeavor. It reminded us that a TV show, no matter how absorbing, is a folly, a fake, a job that someone is hired to do, so that an HBO subscription can be sold to you. The coffee cup will be scrubbed away with a quick flick of magic technology; but before it’s entirely gone, I hope they give it an Emmy.”

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The last Sea-Monkey post, I promise

The Sea-Monkeys are doing swimmingly, thank you, flapping and flying through speckled salt water, pumping fleshy wings and wagging long pink tails like bitty aquatic dragons. Dozens of them flit and twirl about in a plastic tank that’s at best seven inches tall. (See some in action here. It’s totally worth it.)  

The last time I reported on Sea-Monkeys — here — I had just watched a memory-rattling short film about the fanciful water simians, which are actually simple but neato-to-watch brine shrimp. (But let’s pretend they’re actually otherworldly, kinda creepy alien demon creatures, the love-children of Poseidon and a mermaid — or of Aquaman and a king prawn. You pick.) 

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Watching the film, I was prepared to order the small Sea-Monkey tank that comes with Water Purifier, Instant-Life Crystals (eggs) and Growth Food packets lickety-split, I was so excited seeing again the novelty pets I had owned so many times over the decades. (I’m apeshit for these monkeys, you might say.) 

So I did. For $12.98 at Amazon, I got The Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys Ocean-Zoo, which the package promises “The World’s Only Instant Pets!”®. I filled the tank with tepid tap water, churned in the Water Purifier and waited the prescribed 24 hours before dumping in the Monkey eggs. I stirred them good and waited. 

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Within minutes pencil-dash creatures were zigzagging the water, itsy, white, herky-jerky things you might see under a microscope — autonomous amoebas swimming on their own and doing gleeful backflips. A month later, they are happy, confident, independent and plump — about the size of fingernail clippings — everything you want in healthy offspring. I asked my niece to name the critters. She named them all Charlie. 

The Sea-Monkey world is like an undersea ant farm, without the dirt and without, in my case when I tried to cultivate an ant farm, mass annihilation. Not that Sea-Monkeys don’t die. They do. But they also reproduce and replenish their populations in sly ways, such as lacing the Growth Food with fresh eggs that hatch instantly when I feed the creatures every five days or so. Smelly green powder goes in, and babies, mere monkey specks, promptly appear. 

It’s that kind of thing that keeps me in the strange thrall of Sea-Monkeys. They really are pets, even if they don’t bark at the mailman, play fetch or, like a certain cat, curl up on your face while you sleep. They don’t stain the carpet, rack up vet bills or, really, do much of anything.

They’re like fish — pretty, transfixing, calming things to look at — but you don’t have to clean the tank. Self-sufficient, save for periodic feedings by their benevolent master (me), Sea-Monkeys just do their thing, flip about, swim around, dance and jig with an alacrity we can only envy. 

Looking back at Chewbacca

This is the very first image I ever saw of Chewbacca:

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It was spring 1977 and I was young. I had hair like a mid-career Beatle. Movie-wise, I was obsessed with “Jaws” from two years prior. And, even at that early grade-school age, I thought “Dog Day Afternoon,” watched repeatedly on cable, was the dope. (Later movie manias would include “Close Encounters,” “Alien” and “The Elephant Man.”)

My dad came home with a thick press kit for the summer movie roster from 20th Century-Fox. (A journalist, he often arrived from the office with public relations goodies from movie studios and, maybe coolest, the Mattel toy company. We were the first kids in town to have Slime and Shogun Warriors.)

I don’t recall any of the movies in the 20th Century-Fox press kit but one, a mysterious little picture called “Star Wars” that was slated to hit theaters May 25. My immediate fascination with the movie, well before I saw it, is so clichéd that I will keep the recollection trimmed and distilled. 

Amid a sheaf of black and white stills of characters from the film, bound in a colorful folder emblazoned with the now-iconic “Star Wars” logo, my attention zeroed in on one particular photo. The caption read: “Chewbacca, the hundred year old Wookiee, co-pilots the Millennium Falcon, a Carnelian pirate starship.”

Chewbacca? Wookiee? Yes! This was the baddest movie character I’d ever seen, a hair-covered giant holding an automatic weapon in what appeared to be the desert with a Clint Eastwood, “Go ahead, make my day” expression on his Sasquatchian puss. The pure, scorching exoticism of it blew my little mind. I immediately stuck on my wall the 8-x-10 with four silver tacks. Anticipating the day I could see this creature move and (not quite) speak on the big screen became a pastime of electric excitement. 

The man I would soon learn filled the Chewbacca fur-fest was Peter Mayhew, a 7-foot-3 Briton who died of a heart attack at 74 yesterday at his North Texas home. (Check out his personal site Chewbacca.com.) The galaxy weeps. 

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Mayhew and Chewbacca. Similarities abound.

As Chewie, Mayhew growled and laser-gunned his way through five “Star Wars” features as sidekick and co-pilot to Harrison Ford’s swashbuckling Han Solo. They were a dynamic duo, BFFs who fought together, cried together, drank together and probably had a secret handshake. That’s all the speculation I will pursue.

Chewbacca wasn’t the most complex character. He had moist, soulful animal eyes and teeth like a German shepherd’s. The mournful, bestial yowls he had to rely on for vocal communication without the gift of speech could shred your ears, and rend your heart. (His voice was created with recorded animal sounds.)

“He put his heart and soul into the role of Chewbacca and it showed in every frame of the films, from his knock-kneed running, firing his bowcaster from the hip, his bright blue eyes, down to each subtle movement of his head and mouth,” Mayhew’s family said in a statement.

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Chewie and Solo — one of the great action duos in movie history

Valiant, righteous, a fighter, friend and even funny, Chewbacca as portrayed by Mayhew was more than a guy pantomiming in a gorilla suit. He lent the Wookiee spirit, spunk and purpose. I absorbed all of this when I finally, in a one-screen art-deco movie theater in the summer of ’77, saw my hero in action, this towering benevolent beast, who fleetly dispensed with Imperial baddies and didn’t complain when saucy Princess Leia dismissed him as a “walking carpet.”

It’s why as a kid I was so crestfallen when, at the end of the film, everybody got a Medal of Bravery for saving the galaxy and blowing up the Death Star except Chewie, who just stands there during the ceremony, tall and noble, nothing dangling around his neck. Only his mighty ammo-filled bandolier, worn like a sash on his left shoulder, bedecks him.

But that’s Chewbacca — humble, honorable, tough and self-effacing. He deserves a medal. If not for assisting in nearly killing Darth Vader, then for being both a literal and figurative colossus.

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