An interesting name is irresistible to me. It might capture someone perfectly, make me want to know more about them, or just be entertaining. My grandmother’s maiden name was Grace Funk, which is possibly my favorite name ever. That it belonged to an unassuming midwestern woman born just after the turn of the (previous) century somehow adds to its appeal. Our town included a family with the last name of Booze. The parents actually named their two daughters Brandi and Sheri.
A past Uncommon read was written by a travel writer named Freda Moon, a name so good I gave it to a character in a short story. I met a Margot once and have been determined to find a use for that name ever since. My most memorable professor’s first name was Folke and he embodied it completely.
Many of the best names are from fiction, film, music, and television. I’m partial to Wes Anderson and Aaron Sorkin, so it’s no surprise that some of my favorites belong to their characters: Rosemary Cross, Steve Zissou, Ash and Kristofferson, Toby Ziegler, and Isaac Jaffe. And how can I not love names like Amelia Pond, Ramona Flowers, Malachi Constant, and Althea?
Our own names have layers of stories within them; the story of how they came to be and who we came to be. We’re given names, but sometimes we grow into someone else. We decide that what we’ve been called is no longer who we are. Names are intimately wrapped up in our identity and vice versa.
Which is sort of a strange thought in my case, because at different times in my life, I have been referred to by my first, middle, and last name. In the right setting, I have be attuned to respond to all three. Funny enough, they really do feel like slightly different versions of myself. They mark the years like rings on a tree.
Last week's dispatch asked, What's your favorite room, past or present?
When I got home from school in the afternoons, I’d turn on the 10” kitchen TV and make myself a snack. Jeopardy at 3:30, Oprah (less interesting) at 4pm. I would sit at the kitchen countertop bar and watch and eat and gradually bring out homework. My seat had a long view down the counter and worktop. Years later, it’s one thing my mom would say she missed when I left for college, this quiet evening presence while she cooked. Sometimes I would help her, but school took precedence. We’d keep each other company, each doing our own thing. When dinner was almost ready, my responsibilities were to set the table, queue up a CD, and fetch my dad from his home office, where he continued to work after getting home from work.
The countertop was ideal for working because it didn’t have to be cleaned up for mealtime. That was for the “breakfast table” behind, which had an ever-growing stack of papers on half of it. The other half was cleared for exactly three placemats. If my dad was out of town, my mom and I would just eat dinner together at the bar.
In a smaller home, in a smaller country, my kitchen table has a mini stack of papers to go through and enough space for two placemats, maybe more.
My favorite room is definitely our living room. It is a big room where my wife and me meet most evenings to connect after the day. It is the room I relax and read in. It is the room we had our wedding part in. It is the room our friends stay over in when they come visit. It is the room we give some of our courses in. It is a room of possibilities.
My favorite room was definitely the bedroom I had in high school. I got to decorate it completely how I wanted and it was entirely me. It also helped that it was the old master suite with its own bathroom through the closet. It was full of bright colors, with each wall a different color, and then the closet (which had an adorable little chandelier) and bathrooms both different colors on top of that. I finally had a big bed and enough room for a futon and a papasan chair with a small canopy over it. There was also a fabulous gold and leopard print high heel shoe chair, and to this day I regret letting my mom get rid of it.
Speaking of my mom, she made me these awesome custom curtains out of a mix of different fabrics with all different patterns, colors, and textures. Even though I wouldn't hang them now, I adored them at the time. I had a couple framed movie posters and a print of "The Kiss" by Gustav Klimt and an entire calendars worth of retro drawings of New York (I was enamored of the idea of moving there and started my college career there) and a desk that was entirely covered in a collage of my pictures and drawings and magazine clippings. I would definitely be down to semi-recreate that room elsewhere, just with a less juvenile feeling. That room just spoke volumes to who I was, and to a certain extent, to who I still am.
My favorite room, past and present, is my living room. It is one half of the downstairs of an open, center-stair Cape. It is practically a place of rest, of communion with my wife and two children to play, read, watch, converse, and be together. It is a place of love, comfort, safety, dreaming and hoping together, and replenishment. It is symbolically representative of all I never had as a child in any room I inhabited, but which my resilient spirit desperately longed for. It is where I explore the magical, distant, scary, and beautiful worlds of stories near and far, real and fantasy. It is the place where when I am alone while my family slumbers upstairs, lying or seated on my couch, reflecting upon various spans of time -- my day, my month, my year, my lifetime -- I feel a deep gratitude that I no longer merely live or survive in a house or an apartment. Rather I thrive in a loving home. That is my loving, I mean living room. That is my favorite room.
My favorite room is the family room of my in-laws. This room with its sectional couches is where I would first meet my husband's parents and come to fall in love with them. In this room is where my mother-in-law and I would knit our projects; she would knit blankets for her 8 children and 9 grandchildren and I would knit socks. In this room is where his parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. 4 months later, this room is where my mother-in-law (couches moved out for a hospital bed) spent her last days and last breath from the ravages of breast cancer. Then 9 months later, this room held the 8 children plus spouses and 9 grandchildren as they mourned the passing of my father-in-law who died from an aggressive form of kidney cancer.
The house now belongs to another family but this room, the sectional, the TV, the wafts of dinner being cooked, and the love of parents lives on in my heart and in the hearts of this family.
I'm not sure that this is my favorite room, but no matter. It is in my mind. I house-sat for a widow this summer. It was a house beyond comprehension, but not in size or in splendor. Rather, it was the "home-iest" home I have ever been in. Why? My money is on the kitchen filled with wonderful spices and seasonings (she used to be a caterer). But it also had a sense of care and love about it that, like a liquid, spread to fill every corner it was allowed. But this room wasn't in the house. It was in the barn/garage. The barn's attic was completely nude except for an old, massive poster of Paris. When I went up there for the first time, the sun's setting rays glanced off it in such a way as to make the streets pop and come to life. The widow's stories of Paris that I had heard so frequently before she went on vacation suddenly overtook my mind, bringing a thousand images of what it must have been like in her younger days.
As a freshman at Harvard I lived in the T.S. Eliot room, 42 Apley Court. At the time, it was the only freshmen dorm located outside Harvard yard, so Apley was already set apart by distance, its regal lion door knockers, and its walk-in closets. But even among gilded splendor, the T.S. Eliot room stood out. A special plaque outside our door memorialized the poet who spent his youth as a philosophy concentrator there (presumably accompanied by a servant, as was standard in the Gold Coast dorms of that era). In my tenure, I shared the space with two other roommates. The tub in the marble bathroom was a luxury among dorms, and though the fireplace had long been closed off for safety, the mantle added a certain charm and gravitas to the room. In the winter, the old radiators clanged and clacked with dry heat. I couldn't help but picture Thomas Sterns Eliot, hunched over his desk, listening to the same rhythmic beats, looking out over the same fourth-floor view.
As lovely as it was, my ties to the room didn't really develop until I took a spring semester course with Peter Sacks covering T.S. Eliot's entire oeuvre from Prufrock to the Four Quartets. Carefully parsing each line for Eliot's rich allusions to the canon was a fitting initiation into the department that would become my home base for the next four years. Reading from my crimson futon, pausing to gaze out the window between the wrought iron scrolls, I felt as though I was really occupying the space I shared with the great poet through his words and his room.
"I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time."
- from "Burnt Norton" in The Four Quartets
The locker room holds some of the highest and lowest developmental memories for me. It still is a nostalgic place that for too many others turned disgusting or brutish.
In middle school our brotherhood retreated to the boys locker room before school every day in fear of the inter-gender mingling that would be required of us if we gathered in the school hallway. With whatever we found in the lost & found we created games to amuse ourselves by challenging each other making up rules as we went along. It was a formation place for us young boys and our brotherhood together.
In team sports there's little relief like the locker room. Out in the fray with spectators and expectations the challenge is high! But everyone with a jersey eventually retreats together to one room. Out of the attention you celebrate or forget moving on with just those in that room to the next one.
The room I'm in right now-- my home office and guest room-- is a current favorite. It's colorful and full of books and toys and homemade gifts. There's a big window that looks out on our live oak, and the dog likes to hang out in here with me. (Don't tell my guests, but that bed is his when no one's visiting.) But the room also has a door I can close when the cats decide they want to type or I need to shut out the noise of the rest of the house.
Another favorite, past and present, is my parents' dining room. "Dining room" brings all the wrong things to mind. It's just a small space in an old house, squeezed between the kitchen and the bathroom and the back room with the ping pong table. There are almost as many doorways as walls. Our small wooden kitchen table (with no two chairs that match) sits in the middle. Built for four or six at the most, we've somehow manage to fit ten or more people around it through the years for meals or games of cards or 42. If furniture soaked up the conversations around it, the strongest man on earth wouldn't be able to lift that table.
Then there are the more temporary rooms, and they can have lasting effects too. This week I retold a story about my freshman dorm room.
In my senior year of high school I couldn’t take the yearbook class again; my schedule wouldn’t allow it. Instead, my yearbook advisor accepted me and one other student as Teacher Assistants in our off period, and during that hour we worked on the yearbook content (mostly). Since I had been on staff the year before (a rarity in my school) and during that class period had uncontested access to the lone beige PowerMac on which we laid out the book in Aldus Pagemaker, Mr. Pyle made me the copy editor. Thus, when the end of the year arrived without a finished yearbook, as it always does, I stayed on for an additional three weeks to help complete the remaining content and design work.
The yearbook office was really just a corridor at the back of Mr. Pyle’s regular classroom, a large, airy space with hardwood floors and huge single-paned windows that overlooked the driveway of the school. Just beneath one window, Mr. Pyle kept a turntable on which he occasionally played classical music when his students were taking an exam. But he also had an 18-record collection of WWII-era Glenn Miller songs, and during those long pre-summer hours when the two of us were finishing the yearbook, I worked my way through the entire set.
I wish I had kept in better touch with Mr. Pyle; after a few years my family moved away from that city, so I stopped visiting him on my college breaks to talk about advances in desktop publishing software. But when I immerse myself in the memory of that classroom, I can still feel the burgeoning sense of importance and adulthood I got as an 18-year-old, listening to jazz and shouldering responsibility alongside another grown-up I admired.
I don’t think I can settle on an absolute favorite room, but that one comes as close as any.
Never Not Robocall All Your Friends Forever by Nick Disabato:
This is mostly my fault. I could just bite the bullet and start a Facebook group or rejoin Twitter, and then I wouldn’t have to worry about this. And that’s when my neighbor Chris jokingly suggested that I build an autodialer and robocall all of my friends. Obviously I did this, and it’s been awesome.
Let's talk about margins by Craig Mod:
Thoughtful decisions concerned with details marginal or marginalized conspire to affect greatness. (Hairline spacing after em dashes in online editing software — for example.) The creative process around these decisions being equal parts humility and diligence. The humility to try again and again, and the diligence to suffer your folly enough times to find the right solution.
What are your favorite names from life or fiction?