Figuring Out Who You Are

Hand with book“Please don’t call me Doctor Jones,” said an extremely distinguished PhD speaker I met recently; “I’m just a teacher named Joe. I’ve been Joe all my life.” His name is changed to protect the innocent.

Having one name all your life is almost as interesting to some of us… of a certain age… as meeting a prominent multiple-degree lecturer who calls himself “just a teacher.”

Not someone of many degrees, I am nevertheless someone of many names. Maiden name, married name, resumption of maiden name after divorce, brief and ill-fated second marriage (yep, changed my name again,) eventual marriage to my Final Husband, whose name I took on moving across the U.S. nearly a quarter of a century ago. Because I’ve been writing since college (Fran Moreland) I often joke – though this is not a source of pride, only comic relief – that my literary resume reads like an anthology. Each name still bears its own notoriety, as well as its own burdens.

A fascinating look at what names and name changes have meant to women over the centuries is offered by my talented writer/scientist friend Jo Anne Simson in a recent article published in Persimmon Tree magazine titled “What’s in a Name.”

Names, Simson writes, have been used against women in subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – ways to subjugate, control and deny their sense of personhood. Probably the most damning of these practices for women in America was the assigning to slaves the surname of their masters, which “ruptured a connection to a past culture from which they had been torn most unwillingly. Moreover, the name change signified an identity conversion from personhood to property… ‘Leave your past behind. You are now property, not a person.’”

This writer’s post graduate experience ended with an MFA in short fiction, University of San Francisco Class of 2000, which conferred a degree but no title. I have, however, managed to keep my final literary name since 1992.

At about the same time I took on the final marital/literary name above, my first grandchild was born, bringing the other defining ID: Gran. The favorites survive.

 

 

Money, media and Emily Dickinson

You always want your own kid to be #1. Best all round.

So of course I bet on True/Slant having gotten its name, in part at least, from Emily Dickinson. True: the celebrities, literary and otherwise, who most frequently pop up on these pages are more 21st century than 19th. Can Emily hold her own amid the likes of Rima Fakih, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga? (These fellow femmes come from assorted recent True/Slant pages, this good site not yet having a Literature section.) Slant: I suspect she can hold her own against Elena Kagan or Sarah Palin, any day.

The good husband and I attended an interesting play over the weekend, Tell It Slant, a Southside Theater production of a play by Sharmon J. Hilfinger and composer Joan McMillen at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center. It tells, with both truth and slant, the story of young Emily. Was she gay? Did she have a secret lover? Did sister-in-law/romantic interest Susan go running off having abortions after she married brother Austin? You’ll have to read a biography or two, and you still may only gain a slant. What IS true is that one of the extraordinary poems penned by the Amherst recluse reads as follows:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightening to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

This occasion (dinner and a play) came at the instigation of our erudite physician friend Bob Liner. He says of course the subliminal reference to ‘Tell it Slant’ was intentional when T/S settled on its name. Far more cynical husband says, nahh, it’s a matter of reported news always having a slant, and T/S pursues the true one. I weigh in on the lofty hope of such a connection — this being the closest I’m ever likely to come to Emily Dickinson despite my A in poetry while  pursuing an MFA at the University of San Francisco.

Alas. Pure coincidence say the esteemed editors. But in the Sunday New York Times Magazine article in which writer Andrew Rice extensively quotes T/S founder Lewis Dvorkin I read that the name was picked “off a list of compound words that were made up by a Web developer.”

Now if I can just track down that Web developer. Surely she was a fan of Emily Dickinson.

Greeting the new GRE revisions

It should be said up front that I never took the Graduate Record Exam. MFA programs are not, I think, noted for their insistence on past academic rigor; and in any event I was grateful for the University of San Francisco graduate school’s willingness to consider 45 years’ writing experience in lieu of my less than stellar undergraduate record. In the interest of higher education in general, though, I try to keep up with such things as this, just reported in the San Francisco Chronicle:

After two false starts, the Graduate Record Exam, the graduate school entrance test, will be revamped and slightly lengthened in 2011 and graded on a new scale of 130 to 170.

On the quantitative section, the biggest change will be the addition of an online calculator. The writing section will still have two parts, one asking for a logical analysis and the other seeking an expression of the student’s own views.

One has to worry about that online calculator. I did indeed study math about the time of the abacus, but what’s the matter with adding and subtracting in the head? Maybe they just mean that some mysterious online genie will immediately calculate results.  Still, I am heartened that expressions of students’ own views will be sought.

The Educational Testing Service, which administers the GRE, described its plans Friday at the annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools in San Francisco, calling the changes ‘the largest revisions’ in the history of the test.

Although the exam will still include sections on verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing, each section is being revised. The new verbal section, for example, will eliminate questions on antonyms and analogies. The section will focus more on reasoning than on individual words, all of which will be used in context.

Personally, I think I could shine on antonyms and analogies, not to mention individual words, and hate to see them go. But reasoning is good.

‘The biggest difference is that the prompts the students will receive will be more focused, meaning that our human raters will know unambiguously that the answer was written in response to the question, not memorized,’ said David Payne, who heads the GRE program for the testing service.

If one worries about online calculators, one can only rejoice over the presence of human raters. Best, however, that one who is possessed of a perfectly respectable BA in Art and a fairly impressive MFA in short fiction, stay away from the GRE altogether.

GRE undergoes major revisions, gets new scale.

On learning at 30… or 40… or…

True/Slant contributor Gina Welch, on turning 30 just now, posted a fine list of 20 things she learned in her twenties, at the precise moment when I’d been musing about the passage of time myself. A somewhat more elderly muse, that is, since mine was prompted by the realization that day before yesterday marked the 85th anniversary of my parents’ marriage. In case that doesn’t sound elderly enough, my parents were both born in 1897, whew.

So in response to Gina’s wisdom here are six things I learned in my sixties (which are way past, at that.) It was terribly hard not to plagiarize, especially Gina’s Listen to your mother, even if it’s only to her long-departed voice in your head, or Wallow not, advice that improves exponentially with age.

1 – Get up early in the morning. It’s way more fun when you aren’t doing it because the baby’s crying, the school bus is waiting or the boss is calling… but just because the To-Do list actually contains stuff you want to do. Plus, days have fewer hours in them.

2 – Go back to school. Classmates a generation or two younger can be wise beyond your years. After a lifetime of writing for newspapers and magazines (you remember print journalism?) I joined the Class of ’00 at the University of San Francisco to pick up an MFA in short fiction. Who knew? If you run into anyone ready to publish my short story collection, let me know. A few of them have actually seen the light of publication, but I’m going to publish The Marshallville Stories in full if I live long enough… or perhaps if I learn enough in my 70s.

3 – Medicare is good. Imagine not having to freak out at every bodily suggestion that fatal expenses could be right around the corner. Imagine everybody having that unfreakable experience. How about we pass health reform?

4 – Listen to your daughter. She can probably teach you a LOT about changing mores, gender identities, adventure travel and how to see the world. Not to mention low fashion, hair styling, organic food and living well.

5 – Listen to your granddaughter. She can definitely teach you about computer programs, digital photography, what 18-year-old college art students are doing, and teenage music. You can close your ears when the teenage music part comes.

6 – Count your blessings. Seriously. If you’re still able to get up in the morning and remember how to count, this is good exercise. And if you count forwards and then repeat the same numbers backward you have exercised your brain, which is increasingly important. At a certain point in life it is tempting to reflect on the world when nobody locked their doors and you dashed onto airplanes just as they were pulling up the steps. And people apologized if they inadvertently used the D-word in front of your mother (there’s her voice again in my head…) So it’s okay to count nostalgic blessings, too; just don’t forget about par courses or contemporary chamber music or sunsets over the Pacific or that grandson who speaks Mandarin and Spanish at 17…

Thanks, Gina. Happy Birthday.