Thursday, March 8, 2007

What, Indeed, Is in a URL?

In times past, your name was the then equivalent of an embedded chip, containing information related to birth, status, occupation. Status was multifarious in its implications, it could be anything from religion to clan or moiety, guardian spirit, family. Giving your name was the equivalent of handing your driver's license to a cop when you were pulled over on suspicion of DUI.

Your name was your curriculum vitae when dealing with the Dean of your college (and yes, the family name Dean still contains a residue of the academic association), your resume when applying for a job outside the academy, and your credits, should you be trying to interest an editor or agent in your writerly career.

There are still some vestigial remnants of birth and status in a person's name. I was taken more than a little aback one afternoon at the doorway to the studio of my longtime friend, writer, painter, teacher, raconteur, and former saloon owner, Barnaby Conrad. A huge brass plaque rested against the side of the building, bearing the name Barnaby Conrad. Clearly the plaque had funerary implications. All I could think to say as I entered and saw BC, intent over his easel, was "Are you feeling okay?" It quickly developed that the plaque was for his late father's monument in the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Using a straightforward calculus, I realized for the first time that my friend of some twenty-five years duration was either BC, Jr., or BC the 2nd, and from that moment forth, his oldest son was transmogrified into BC3.

In the world of the academy, we have another nomenclature appendage. (See what the merest hint of writing about the academy does to one's language!) Brian Fagan, recently retired from the UCSB Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, is entitled to add the designation emeritus to his professorial clan status, and I could always tell when Lloyd W. Garrison, my old boss at ABC-Clio, was irked with me if he signed a memo, LWG, USN (ret).

Leonard Tourney, with whom I cohosted writers' workshops for some years, is too modest and plain spoken to rely on the Doctor signifier he is entitled to use before his name; to his even greater credit, he has artfully contrived that most people he deals with refer to him simply enough by his first name.

Somewhere within our name, we carry an image of self that conveys who we are and who we are not. Sans Ph.d., I am not a doctor. I neither mind nor encourage the designation of professor because, when you sort it out, I am a professor, although adjunct, which is further to say non-tenure track, because I am a writer.

A writer. Ah, I like the sound and feel of it, somewhat like settling the self into a custom-made pair of Peel shoes. The designation of writer has been there lo these many years, coming at a distinct moment when, as a miserable (emotionally, physically, and practically) student in the fourth grade in P.S. Number 10, Perth Amboy, New Jersey, fresh from having read Tom Sawyer, and newly embarked on Huckleberry Finn, I asked the teacher who had introduced the former to me what this Mark Twain fellow did as a profession to allow him the leisure to write such things. She told me that he was a writer and that he did not need to have a profession. And I, callow youth, pressed the issue by asking if it were possible then for people to make a living by writing and not needing to have another profession. Mrs. DeAngelo replied that most people could not be a writer without having another profession, but in Mr. Twain's case, yes; it was possible. (I was later to learn that Mr. Twain had had a profession he very much admired but, as Huck Finn said later on, "that aint no matter.")

Thus was I borne away from being callow to being hubristic: I, too, wished to make my living as a writer. I am not stretching things too far out of context at all to bring in at this point she who would become my mentor, Rachel Maddux, who showed me a document she had written, "Communication," that was her operating statement as a writer. If your writings were not published, she said in effect, if they did not bring you in the means for a living, why, never mind, you did it anyway because that was who you were.

I signed on to that, as well, and although it has brought me to two remarkable forks in the road--editing and teaching--why, never mind, I do it anyway because that is who I am.

Unlike some of those I have mentioned above with honorifics or titular equivalents of campaign ribbons to wear on my chest or lapel, I go forth into the world with the most important knowledge of all, the knowledge of being this writer who is me.

Sometimes I find myself wondering what it is about this choice that has held me. And sometimes, particularly on those six late Saturday afternoons a year when I am driving on Route 280, south out of Woodside, CA, having just finished hosting my Woodside Writers' Workshop, I pass the Stanford University linear accelerator. It comes to me then. The accelerator speeds up atoms, enhances and redirects their path until there is a collision and a reaction. Writers do that; writers accelerate what ifs and other ideas until they collide and form something else with other qualities and properties.

Don't misread me; sexual activity feels glorious on a physical and emotional level; eating a splendid meal feels as though the universe were expanding about me; music causes me to realize that there are as yet unnamed dimensions and planets; reading allows me the exquisite exercise of empathy and wonderment; arguing politics is, for all its frustration, a ratification of the human condition; merely looking at the ocean is a high, but seeing a sea otter in said ocean is worth an extra hooray; eating a greasy breakfast on the Second Mesa in the Southwest is an indescribable sense of being connected with a living, breathing earth.

I carry all these with me, scurrying like a puppy inside me, eager to get out and sniff. The container I carry them in is the container of me the writer.

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