When the lights go out

The problem with New Year’s Eve and day is that there’s too much pressure to do something both meaningful and hedonistic. It’s an oxymoronic holiday the way we celebrate it in the U.S. Why would you want to set the tone for a fresh start with a hangover, either literal or figurative, from too much of everything? Too much rich food, too many trinkets that you gave and received and there’s nowhere to put everything. And would someone please take this treadmill I have no intention of using ever again?

Maybe it doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe Jan. 1 should be a celebration of closeness, rest, and relaxation, since winter forces us to slow down. You can’t get any traction when there’s ice on ground. Winter is here, but what does that mean now that every room is filled with screens generating artificial light?

Maybe it means we should light a candle and read a paper book like Abraham Lincoln did, just as a symbolic gesture. I say that, but am I just hypocritically dwelling on the past like aging people always do? Should I just shut up and download an app that counts my footsteps so I can lose these holiday pounds instead of pointing out to everyone who suggests it that people lost weight BEFORE they had apps?

The thing about Americans is that we are not very good at slowing down because, frankly, it’s not good for the economy. You keep cranking it out and I’ll keep consuming it, then we can both be proud of our contributions and no one can call us lazy.

I’m not trying to be preachy. I’m trying to figure out a way to enjoy the end of this holiday break. Everyone I know is saying it’s been a hard year for them, personally and politically. A lot of people are asking themselves: Why is my family so pathetic/dysfunctional? Why am I not where I had hoped to be at this point in life?

The challenge of New Year’s is finding something to look forward to when it is cold outside, we’ve got months of winter ahead, and we know this year will be full of personal and political challenges just like the last one. We are inclined to hibernate, but there’s work to be done.

Probably no one over 30 really looks forward to getting another year older. I, for one, was hoping this year would go by really slowly, because it’s my last year in my 30s. I’ll turn 40 in May, and I don’t care what anyone says, 40 isn’t young.

But dreading my next birthday isn’t slowing down time. The fall semester flew by and spring will do the same. At the school where I work, we start new classes each semester, so I only have the same students for about five months at a time, like at a college. There are good and bad things about that schedule. I suppose in many ways it’s good that we have a lot to do in a short amount of time. Theoretically, there’s little opportunity for boredom.


Even though most adults don’t look forward to getting older or the challenges it brings, there are people on the planet who do look forward to their next birthday because of all the opportunities that will come with it. Those people are called children. In this country, a child is anyone under the age of 30 with no children of their own.

I can’t remember how I felt the first time I saw snow, but I do remember what it was like when I got my driver’s license, and when I got an acceptance letter from the first college I applied to.

Now I have people asking me for letters of recommendation and help getting internships and even though I have to caution them not to make the same mistakes I did, I also owe it to them not to be too cynical to imagine that there is a big world out there that needs and wants them, and a small one at home that will welcome them back if the big one turns out to be too much or too little.

The small world at home is where it begins, where you can keep it simple with real candles, handwritten letters and paper books, favorite stories, and songs passed from one generation to the next. Simple rituals to hold onto when the lights go out are not just symbolic gestures, but part of surviving the dark winters in every life.


The names that got away

It dawned on me recently that soon I will be an old woman named Star Friend.

An old woman, with a tattoo, named Star Friend.

Of course, there will be plenty of other old ladies with tattoos, but they’ll have names like Melissa and Jennifer. What kind of name is Star Friend for an old lady?

For years I wished my name were Shirley, maybe because of the writer Shirley Jackson. I figured someone named Shirley would be interesting, but not odd, and definitely wouldn’t have to go around apologizing for her weird name. If my name were Shirley, I would have red hair, tortoiseshell glasses, and a better sense of humor.

When I was about 17, I once delivered a pizza to two people in a Victorian house. The man was in his 20s and had a thick ponytail. The woman was in her 50s.

I didn’t get a good look inside the house as I collected the money for their pizza, but I imagined it was furnished with a lot of funky original modern artwork, Oriental rugs, and grandfather clocks. They listened to jazz music. The woman was not his mother. Nor was she his lover, because the age difference between them was too great and that would have been gross. No, that guy in his 20s was hanging out with that woman in her 50s because they were both artists of some kind or another. He liked her because she knew more about their particular art than he did. I figured her name was probably Shirley.

Today I decided that it would be great if my name were Nora.

I came to this conclusion while emailing a woman named Nora. If I were a Nora, I would be taken seriously at all times. I imagine that Noras can quiet a room of noisy kids just by raising an eyebrow. They are feminine, but also intellectual. They have dark brown hair. Noras can be hot at 45 or 50, not Baywatch bimbo hot, but the understated, mysterious kind.

What can we do with these names we wanted, but will never have? What about the other names that got away – the ones we wanted for our sons and daughters, if only our husbands, friends, and family members hadn’t vetoed them?

I have a whole list of those names, mostly for girls.

When I was 21 I told my then-boyfriend that I wanted to have three daughters named Bianca, Rosaline, and Sophia. He said that under no circumstances would he approve of any of those names.

That was OK because we never got married.

My husband didn’t like the name Bianca, either, and neither did any of my friends. One friend said “Bianca” sounded like a promiscuous snob.

Regardless, our first child was a boy. Everyone approved of the name Oliver for him. We got a bit of grief from our parents over our proposal to make his middle name Trout, so we decided not to use it. In hindsight, I’m glad we caved, but I was furious at the time that my mother had given me all the weirdest names she could gather up, but was opposed to me naming her grandson after a fish. Nonetheless, Oliver grew into a boy who feeds more fish every day than the owner of a small pet store.

The scary thing about names is that they really are so full of meaning and predestination. It’s one reason people play it safe with classic names. Your kid probably won’t hate you for naming him John or Elizabeth.

These days, I’m surrounded in the high school where I work by Kaylees, Madisons, Mikaylas, Mackenzies, Logans (for boys and girls), Bradens, Jaydens, Caydens, Sydneys, Alexises, and so on. I have yet to encounter a teen in this generation named Stacey or Donna.

It’s hard to escape the generational appeal of names. Just when you think you have chosen one that is unique but appealing, you hear of someone else who is thinking of giving their child the same name. This is going to happen, so don’t bother getting defensive.

The last name that got away from me was India Eleanor. I loved it for a daughter, but my husband thought it was too melodramatic, too faux exotic when we’re not exotic. We’re not even Eastern European.

All you can do with these names that you wanted for yourself and your children is give them to pets and fictional characters. Some would say writing fiction is a waste of time when you’ll never be the next Shirley Jackson, but if that’s the case, then there’s a lot less risk in naming a fictional character than having another baby.