scared thrilled scared thrill scared thrilled

I find most things in life both scary and thrilling. I suppose I should hope it's always this way, but sometimes it feels like an awful lot of work.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Like a proper Penner (narcissism alert)

I like the idea of names meaning something important. It's a strange idea, as your name is your very first real possession, yet it is pretty much forced on you like the hot potato you'll pass around in kindergarten exactly four years and six months later. Though I have no personal experience with this, it seems like when a baby is named, a few hours (somebody help me, is that right? hours?) after it's birth its pretty much exhibiting mostly baby-style characteristics. All the crying and smacking of toothless gums and being covered in fluids and shaking little clenched fists like "I have no idea what just happened over the last few hours but whatever it was it's cold and I'm pretty pissed about it". Yet names are often very particular in their meaning, and this defenseless little child is given a name by which it will be referred to and characterized for the rest of its life. And so many people grow up to be those definitions they were given before they'd said a peep or chosen a path or wrestled with their existential selves. They had no choice in this. They were assigned a part of their personhood through the naming process. Like my brother Toby. Toby means "very very strange young man". Who knew this would turn out to be exactly the case? Did mum and dad have a premonition?
For me this idea, that your name is a curse/blessing you didn't ask for and can't escape, is hitting home pretty hard right now. Not my first name, "Martin", which is traced back to "Mars", the god of war... I'm kind of a pacifist, but if you challenged me on this I would probably buckle and just submit saying "no, you're right, I'm not a pacifist, whatever you say boss, you're the boss"... and other drivels. So not that part really (swing and a miss dad), but it's the last name thing which has really been hitting home tonight.
Names mean different things in different languages and cultures too. I had a TA in the Jackson School who exhibited this for me very well. His name was Tuna and he was probably the best TA I ever had. I specifically chose to be in his section for a few different classes, just cause I thought he was awesome. And not that he gave me good grades... cause he was pretty friggin tough on me actually... I just liked him (and he was smart too). And he was Turkish. But I didn't know how much I would like him my first day in his class. He wrote his name on the board in big letters "T U N A" and then said, leaning with his arms straight against the desk in front, his words clipped and pushed into the desk in front of him; an intense and a touch self-conscious exhibition, "My name is Tuna. In your language this is the name of a fish, but in my country it is the name of a beautiful river." And I thought "Yeah!!! That's hilarious but totally awesome!"
And here I am now, sitting in a dirty bar in Seattle, typing away like a total social outcast while everyone around me laugh laugh laughs it up and the band sets up their sparkly gear (super sweet early 60's Fender Precision bass). and I've got a head of messy hair and a suitcase I've been lugging around for a while now. Seriously, who goes to a bar with a suitcase?
My last name, "Penner", was always a source of pride for me. It's Mennonite in origin. I could explain "Mennonite", but it would take some time. If you really like I can email you a copy of a paper I wrote about the role collective identity formation played in the swift and total migration of Mennonites from Russia to the New World from 1876-1917, but trust me, you don't want. At any rate, look "Mennonite" up on wikipedia or something... if you're interested.
But Penners were common as dirt where I grew up. Look in the Calgary phonebook and you'll find page after page. Here in Seattle I think there aren't any. Unless I'm in there... am I? When I was a kid we moved to Belize for a year cause my parents thought it would be good for their children to pick them up by the ankles, turn them upside down and shake shake shake. For a year. and they were totally right. Changed my life. About halfway through we moved to a Mennonite colony where having the name Penner pretty much made you either family or a rockstar... I couldn't tell which it was. Maybe it was both.
But in the last few years I've started to realize that there's more to this little etymological story. Every time I'm introduced to someone from Germany they laugh/try to hide laughter/stare/gape/snicker/try to hide snicker/swallow loudly. Apparently "Penner", in German, is kind of a not-nice name for a homeless person. When I first heard this I thought it was just funny. Like "oh yeah, haha, did you hear I'm like a Penner, like a drifter or something ha!" But then I realized, I think it's actually kind of a mean word. Like you wouldn't really want to call somebody that.
At any rate, tonight I'm a Penner. I'm here in Seattle, a city where I lived for years, where at one point I owned property and had all the big parts of a life, where I have friends I love/who love me, where I swam in the lake in the summers and walked in the rain in the winters... here I am, and I'm sitting in a bar next to a suitcase. I've been lugging it around. walking. on buses. It's not everything I own actually, this suitcase, but it's kind of my whole life at this point. And when people ask me where I live I have no answer for them. I'm trying to stretch the burden of me out across this city and the people I love in it. I'm sleeping on friends' floors, taking rides from strangers. Sitting for hours in bars and coffee shops. Walking walking walking. It's strange business. I'm a Penner, apparently. My dad held me up when I was a squiggling little squashy form and said, "hello Martin Andrew Penner". I wonder if he knew how true this could be. I wonder if he would have broke the mold and slapped a new last name on me if he had been able to see this strange and sad evening with its empty glasses, neil young on the stereo and his son sitting alone. I hope not. It may be strange, but it sure is intense, and that's worth something right?


At 12:11 PM, Blogger Eric said...

Hey Mart, I can kind of empathize with you. Jenni and I are homeless and in search of a job at the moment. We are living in my parents' basement and cruising the job boards looking for gainful employment.

If you want to wander this way, we could probably find a roof for you for a few days :)

BTW, I should be up in Seattle later this month or early next month. Do you still have the same cell #?

Hope to see you soon,
Cousin Eric

At 7:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

you forgot the most important 'penner' that you are though. that of words. as in one who pens prose. the blog you keep, the papers you've toiled over. just keep in mind, not all gypsies are homeless. ah the stories you'll have

At 7:50 AM, Blogger toby said...

It means "God is Godd" you shmuck!!!

At 7:50 AM, Blogger toby said...

I mean "God is Good". Everyone knows God is Godd. I mean that's just obvious. The other one not so much.


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