Monday, January 19, 2015

Say my name, say my name

So this week I informed my friend Clay that I was going to start calling him Clayton. I always prefer the formal forms of names; sometimes I'll even add syllables for effect. He endorsed the change. It's adulty, he said: Clay got busted stealing cookies. Clayton defended your brother in court. I changed his contact info in my phone and liked what I saw very much.

But here's the problem with such a change: I never, ever address him by name. If we drop by each other's offices, we just say hey, do a couple upside-down nods at each other, and launch right in. If we msg each other on email, chat or text, it's the same thing. And frankly, on those, we're pretty lucky to get a hey in at all.

It's not just with him; I realized that I hardly ever call anyone by name. For those dearest to me there are sweet names; for most others, with whom affection is largely unspoken, there is the common hey-hey exchange.

The sad part is that we human beings love hearing our names. I remember when my friend Luis started at the paper and we sat around one night saying his name in different ways. We must have said it maybe 30 times in about 3 minutes; he just giggled with delight in hearing it. And I know the tiny thrill I get when I hear my name from the lips of someone I like. 

But so much of that has been lost in modern written and spoken communication. In the past few months I've thought a lot about the differences between email and traditional letter writing -- a medium I mostly missed out on and therefore understand not at all. My friend Mary suggests that they're different forms of communication altogether, one completely evolved from the other, to suit different needs. And that we should treat them as such and stop asking so much of email. For business, I think I can get on board with that. But I will say that for personal messages I appreciate a salutation and a valediction, as infrequently as I use either one. As old-fashioned-seeming and unfit-for-me as it feels, I have to admit that I really love seeing my name.

I suppose that it's because of familiarity that we lose the personal touch of the name. But who would you rather hear say your name than someone you like and choose to talk to every day? So I'm going to try to start using people's names more. 

But maybe not Clayton though. That shit is just too long. I don't know what I was thinking.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Old yeller

About two and a half years ago, a small dark-haired woman yelled at me at the Y. It was a Friday, I remember, because I was watching Scandal on my phone -- the very important last minute and a half of any episode -- and when I walked into the locker room, she accosted me.

To be sure: I was in the wrong. There was a sign very clearly banning phone use, I think because of the cameras. So when she angrily flew into my face, I just apologized, felt bad, and turned my phone off. 

In the intervening couple years, I've thought about that little exchange a lot. I've thought about my part in it, how I hate convenient rule breakers but find myself breaking rules sometimes. It's really made me consider how I act in situations, and how I see people. 

But mostly I've thought about her, about how she came at me like she knew me. I was really surprised by the anger in her face; it was the first time I'd ever seen her so I couldn't tell you how quick she was to anger. Maybe she's always angry. I just know in that 4-5 seconds, she was enraged. And she looked pretty comfortable with it.

So I've thought, well, something must have happened to her that she became this way. Or more likely a series of somethings. Maybe her family wasn't very kind to her, maybe she's experienced heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss. I've also thought about how inhospitable the world is to someone like that. It all makes me very sad for her. I've even fantasized about running into her again (never using my phone in the locker room, of course) so that I could maybe be friendly with her, and strike up a nice conversation. In that wildest of fantasies she softens a little bit. But it never did happen. I never saw her at the gym again.

But I did see her once more, today at Trader Joe's -- a full city away from that Y. I heard a woman yelling at another woman for being in her way, and for her daughter being in her other way. At first I couldn't see them, but when she came flying down the aisle I knew: It was her, the angry stranger. I was far enough away that when "Oh god, you shop here too?!?" escaped my lips I don't think she heard me. And I saw the young mom she'd yelled at, confusedly trying to go about her business. I left my cart and walked over and told her that the woman had yelled at me a couple years ago at the gym and that I was sorry that it had happened to her. I also told her what I'd had a couple years to think about, that life was probably a lot harder for her than it was for me, whether she brings it on herself at this point or not. The mom considered it, and suggested that maybe she suffers from mental illness. She was very nice; she thanked me for coming over to talk to her about it, and she seemed relieved.

As I made my way through the rest of the store, I didn't see the angry woman again. She must have been in a hurry. And I still think all of those things about her; things must be very rough for her. But you know, I don't think I'm going to fantasize about trying to have a nice conversation with her anymore.