19 months ago, I bought a new car. A brand new car. My first. And I shopped, compared, bargained, selected, and financed it all by myself, with the financing based on income from my own company. That may not impress you, but it impressed (and impresses) the hell out of me. Ah, it is so fun becoming a grown up in my fifth decade of life.
Anyway, this car purchase was like an arranged marriage with a fairy tale ending. I’d selected a bottom-of-the-line, manual transmission, Subaru Legacy Wagon in black (because I would not be caught dead driving a white or light blue car, silver is SO not me, and those were pretty much the choices for this class). I was pleased with the choice. I was not “in love.” I did not need to be in love with the car, I was very much in love with myself for buying it.
Imagine my delight when, within a day or three of driving the new car, I fell in love. Virtually overnight she became “Blanche,” and to this day I feel a little thrill of grateful appreciation whenever I see or get into her. I must have written about this in a newsletter around that time, because my friend Sean O’Connor emailed me to say that he’d mentioned Blanche, at least obliquely, in a column he’d written for Seattle Magazine. (That’s Sean on the right. Handsome devil. Last I heard, single. It’s okay. I’m head over heels in love with TCP, who is well aware that I am a shameless flirt and chaste as, well, chasteberries or something.)
Sean’s article was a light, humourous meditation on the phenomenon of naming in urban culture. Ye Olde McMansion Condomiums, for example. It was smart and funny, and it got me thinking about our relationships with things and how naming can be a way to bring things to life or a way to conceal their utter lack of spirit. So I wrote a an email to Sean, a commentary on the commentary, and here it is.
I finally got a copy of Seattle magazine — the lawyers issue — at the airport a couple of weeks ago and have been meaning to write and say, “Nice job. Blanche and I are delighted to make an appearance.” In the weeks since your column took on a deeper significance. In fact, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that the piece gave voice to an important longing in the urban heart: the desire to care about something in a post-ironic age.
This longing has a great deal to do with my deciding not only to name Blanche but to get the license plate (not at all the same as getting the T-shirt). This was not something I did lightly. I am — ahem — a woman of a certain age, and I haven’t named a car since 1972, when I christened my metallic pea-green 1953 MG roadster “Gilda.” (I drove Gilda five times. Three of those times she blew a head gasket. The third time I let her go to a home where her particular needs could be accommodated. She was, shall we say, excitable.)
Anyway, given my age and my standing as a large-ish fish in the smallish pond of the coaching profession, I considered whether it was entirely wise to not only name Blanche (after all, one can cloak that move in relative obscurity), but also to proclaim her name to the world on a vanity plate. Wouldn’t getting “Blanche” plates consign me to that class of middle-aged women who are have regressed to overblown girlhood cuteness? (Really, you would think they would know better.)
With this in mind, I decided not to buy the plates. And then, the night after this decision, the longing I read into your column burbled into awareness. “Must you run every playful impulse through the meat grinder of popular taste?” Burble, burble. “Can a thing legitimately be designated in poor taste when that verdict is rendered by a phantom jury of the jaded, sated, and sad?” Good questions, I thought, and and the next morning I ordered the plates.
I admit this was a minor act in a troubled world, and one that remains open to unflattering interpretations. Still, whenever I mention Blanche’s name or see it shining brightly from her sleek black rump, I feel a flicker of delight. Surely, I think to myself, being considered slightly ridiculous is a small price to pay for such moments of authentic, private delight.
Which brings me back to your inquiry into the quality of commercial names. Perhaps what is missing in the oh-so-not-so-compelling names that label our subdivisions, condominiums, automobiles, and toothpaste is even the tiniest nod to pride or delight. Why would our hearts to lift even a little in response to some property manager’s tired attempt to appeal to our overworked sense of style? Why would we expect our outlook to brighten or our sense of self to be bolstered by the name conferred upon products conceived in cynicism and executed in haste?
All things considered, I suspect that by directing attention to the naming of things you’ve done your readers a greater service than you may know. Perhaps by paying attention to them we will discover the distinct difference between the name that is bestowed in a gesture of connection, ownership, or appreciation and the name that is given to turn the wheel of the consumer treadmill.
Yes, that’s Blanche in the picture. I was trying to show how beautifully she accommodates my red surfboard. This was taken pre-license plates. I’ve made a reasonable facsimile of the real plates to satisfy the curious.
BTW, Fishy over at Good-n-Happy turned me on to Acme’s licensemaker.