Friday, January 23, 2009


You've got to feel sorry for people, and inhabitants of places, whose perfectly good names suffer from associations they never asked for.

Oświęcim is a decent-sized city, between a quarter and a third the size of Eugene. I know that Poland has a long history of anti-semitism and mistreatment of Jewish people, but despite that, it just seems as though there must've been a day when people who lived in Oświęcim could claim their hometown without bracing themselves. We, of course, know Oświęcim as Auschwitz. That's not just the name of the death camp: it's the name of the city nearby. It must be a tough thing to write on a stamped envelope.

Then there's Alzheimer. Nice enough name. There aren't any Alzheimers in Eugene, but Charles and Judith Alzheimer live in Klamath Falls. But Alois Alzheimer had to go and describe this new degenerative and terminal brain disease back in 1906, and now the name has passed into the language as a heartbreaking, nightmarish, slow death sentence. And the more the epidemic takes root, the more that's got to be a constant source of cringing. Speaking of which, Dennis and Theresa Dahmer live in Portland. I imagine that's not uncomplicated either.

And the associations aren't always negative: sometimes they just plain don't fit. A few years back, I knew a young man who debated for Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He was soft-spoken, white, and within the normal range of charisma and social skill for a debater: not hopeless, but slightly on the geek side. And his name was Michael Jordan. And I'm sure that was a perfectly nice name to have when his parents gave it to him, but by the time I met him, he'd been through years of meeting new people and having to exhale hard and be patient while they got their jokes out of their system.

It's like a lightning strike or an earthquake: the kind of thing that robs you or your home of a good name just seems so wanton. You can beef up your health against illness and lock out burglars with better security, but how do you protect your name from other people's deeds?

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