Friday, July 16, 2010

A Rose by Any Other Name

Last weekend, I reactivated my Netflix account for the fifteenth-billion time. Maybe some of you reading this had that one tortured, teenage, on-again, off-again love affair with someone you totally loved but just couldn't make it work out, no matter how hard you both tried?

That's me and Netflix.

But, we've started it up again, even though I know I'm only going to end up getting hurt. Right now, it is so, so good. Instant viewing, friends. Instant viewing. I've been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer like it was my job (except for when I'm doing my actual job for twelve hours a day). And last weekend, I saw something on Netflix I've always, always wanted to see.

The woman I am named after.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: Hey, that's Betty Joan Perske!

Oh you're not thinking that? Lauren Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske, then changed her name to something she found a little more glamorous. (Strange side note: Humphrey Bogart was born Humphrey Bogart, and didn't feel compelled to change his name at all. So cool.)

And Lauren Bacall, dear friends, was cast in two episodes of the late 1970s classic The Rockford Files, as one Kendall Warren.

So, there you have it.

Here's the legend that has developed in my own head concerning my name. I imagine my parents watching TV, clicking through the channels with their brick-like remote that had four buttons on it total (I remember this remote), with my mother hugely pregnant on the couch. Then, The Rockford Files comes on, beautiful Kendall Warren crosses the screen, I give my mother a swift kick to the ribs to let her know I like the name, and two months later, I am born screaming and hairy as an ape and my parents smile down at me and, with tears shining in their eyes, they say, "We shall call her Kendall."

What my parents have actually said was, "Lauren Bacall played a character named Kendall on The Rockford Files and we thought it sounded like a good name, so we picked it."

Somewhere along the way in my self-mythologizing, I decided something else: Kendall Warren was a powerful and successful attorney, wise and no-nonsense, upholding the law and punishing criminals in a good-looking suit. And my parents gave me the name because they knew I was going to be powerful, with an infallible sense of justice.

So imagine my surprise when I sit down to my Netflix instant viewing to watch The Rockford Files, Season 6, Episodes 2 and 3, to meet at last Kendall Warren, this woman for whom I am named, to whom I feel connected each time someone calls me, or when I put my signature at the bottom of a check.

And I find that Kendall Warren is not an attorney at all, but a broke hanger-on traveling in circles of the world's wealthiest and most powerful people, getting along by hook and by crook. She's got no job and she's got no money.

What the what? I could actually hear the record scratch as my brain worked overtime to revise the story I'd told myself my entire life. Some part of my identity felt compromised by this information. Who am I, I asked myself? And why did my parents name me after a (very pretty) social-climber who knows how to get a free lunch?

I handled the news the way I handle most news: I got myself a snack. I exchanged a few pleasantries with Fatty the Hamster. I came back and resumed watching, anxious to see how this new story would play out.

When the episodes had ended, and Rockford had saved the day (and Kendall Warren) I was back to being okay with my name. Because Kendall Warren was resourceful, and she was a scrapper who cleaned up real nice, and she was a woman who knew how to work the system. And maybe, at this point in my life, that sort of resourcefulness will serve me better than a good-looking suit and a knowledge of penal codes.

Not to mention that the most important aspect of my name-origin story isn't that I was named after a powerful lawyer. The most important aspect of my name-origin is that I get my name from a TV character. As if my parents knew, nearly twenty-eight years ago, that I would end up here in LA, doing exactly what I'm doing: scrapping.

Nominally yours,

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Monkey See, Monkey Do.

Last week, I took a field trip to the Los Angeles Zoo. It was educational.

I took the slog, and photo-documented all the weirdest animals I saw. Sadly, I didn't write down the names of any of them, so I can't even tell you what many of these creatures are called. But they are beautiful. (And, okay, I know flamingos, and the emperor tamarind because that one was my very, very favorite--it's the little monkey with the serious white mustache).

As I walked the zoo, getting a little sunburnt, because apparently in LA you should wear sunscreen if you're going to be outdoors for five hours, I had the disturbing realization that we--homo sapiens--are like the plainest animals on the planet. In fact, we're downright boring when compared to flamingoes (flamingos? my computer is telling me both are correct) whose knees bend backwards, or goat creatures with crazy shaggy hairdos and spiraling horns.

I had also forgotten that sometimes, at the zoo, animals stare back at you. Especially meerkats. It's like nobody told them they're the exhibit. And I wanted to say, "Hey, don't waste your time watching us. What've we got? Some flexible thumbs, and wimpy skin that is allergic to sunlight. You know who doesn't need SPF? That crazy blobby warthog thing next to the flamingoes (flamingos?)."

I rode the bus, the LA city bus, to get to the zoo (and lest you compliment me on my resourcefulness, I should tell you that Kate--my roommate's best friend and our houseguest this week--figured out all the logistics. I was, as they say, along for the ride). Here's what I saw:

A mother clutching her daughter's overalls so she couldn't fall out of the bus seat.

A little boy who begged and begged for his grandmother to sit next to him, but she didn't, so he had to sit next to his sister, which he obviously found pretty disgusting. Until he forgot she was disgusting, and they told each other jokes and made each other laugh the whole way to where they were going.

A constant rotation of people taking seats, and then offering up their seats the moment they saw someone older, or more infirm, get on the bus.

An ancient, ancient man who shuffled onto the bus, then helped another ancient man onto the bus at the next stop, and then they got off the bus together, and a very young man with a skateboard helped them down the stairs at their stop.

I guess this is just common courtesy, but I saw so much of it--and I was on the LA city bus, so I expected the sort of indifference that mass transit in a huge city would seem to invite. What I saw, the whole ride, was a surprising gentleness and desire to connect. People just wanted to be helpful.

Then, at the zoo, I was walking behind a big man in oversized clothes. He had lots of blue tattoos like I associate with gang tattoos. He even had a tear drop tattooed under his eye. My brain categorized him as "a rough sort," and I wondered, "what's this guy doing at the zoo?"

He passed a woman pushing a stroller just at the moment her frustrated toddler managed to launch himself right out of his seat and sort of flip towards the pavement. I froze, frightened for the ensuing injury. But in a single, swift, and gentle motion, before the kid could even hit the ground, the same "rough sort" swooped him up and landed him back in his mother's arms, like it was the most natural thing in the world. No hesitation. He didn't even pause, or miss a step. The woman said thank you, dumbfounded, and the kid had this dopey, wide-eyed expression like, "What the hell just happened?"

It was all kinds of heroic.

And my point is that even up against such exotic, curious animals as flamingos (flamingoes?), tapirs, and emperor tamarinds, we people can hold our own.