The Naming Of Things

How exactly do I milk this thing?
Image by Unhindered by Talent via Flickr

Holstein, Jersey…

Then I ran out of names for cows. I’m not a farm girl and, although a big fan of milk and yogurt (thanks, cows!) I’m at a loss to name more than two breeds of them.

For someone who prides herself on knowing a lot about the world, this annoys me.

I went for a walk and tried to name all the trees I saw. I could recognize plane, oak, maple, elm, chestnut, white and red pine, cedar, Japanese maple, birch…But not walnut. I’d feel a little silly carrying a field guide, but how else will I know how to name the things around me?

We know to name the things that matter most, but why can I name (sigh) the makers of $800 shoes more readily than I can cite the names of the trees and flowers and birds that give me the most pleasure?

Having studied a variety of disciplines, from photography to sailing to saber fencing to interior design to two languages (French and Spanish), I have a large and varied vocabulary I enjoy:

quoin, dentil, parapluie, tenedor, gunwhale, boom vang, crazing, metamerism.

What are some of the favorite words you use in your worlds?

I’m A…

Identity (film)
Image via Wikipedia

I’m not wild about labels. On cans, sure.

But people?

Here’s an interesting Slate essay about the difference between Latino/a and Hispanic.

I met a woman recently who said she was a “moderate Republican.” It’s fair to describe my sweetie as a “devout Buddhist.” I know a woman, an artist, who could fairly say she’s a “passionate flea marketer.”

In an era of identity politics, when identifying as member of one group can alienate members of another, how “loud and proud” are we?

My first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” is about the intersection of women and firearms in the U.S. I was fascinated — and depressed — to find that most people assumed I must be a gun-owner, user or even fanatic.


I’ve never owned one, nor plan to. I did shoot a bunch of different handguns as research, but am quite able, as a career journalist, to write about all sorts of issues without attaching myself to them emotionally or investing in that identity or personal allegiance.

That’s what being a traditional news journalist means — finding and reporting stories, not signing up for every cause or group.

Other than our work titles or job descriptions, or our family relationships (Mom, husband, sister, nephew), how do we choose to define ourselves to the wider world?

Words can have such different meanings to many people; one person’s definition of “conservative” (fiscally but not socially) might signal the red flag of a very different belief system to someone else.

I’m liberal in some ways, politically and otherwise, but quite conservative in others, like finances and the way I often dress.

I’m comfortable saying publicly I’m a(n):











I recently took the vows of a bodhisattva. Gulp. Big job!

I doubt I’ll be using that one in social conversation any time soon, but it’s a role I’ve felt strongly about for a while.

How about you?

What are some of your identities?

The Ladies (and Men) Behind The Labels; A Few Labor Day Kudos

Lion cubs playing in the Serengeti
Image via Wikipedia

Do you know of Martin & Osa, a national chain of 28 clothing stores, elegant casual wear, a bit like J. Crew, usually found only in malls? I figured the name was made-up, since J. Crew isn’t a real person. Not so.

This fall, the Martin & Osa stores are finally honoring their namesakes, Martin and Osa Johnson, a husband and wife team whose books and films brought the world into the homes of Americans long before television. The stores are now carrying their best-selling book “I Married Adventure”, whose original zebra-patterned cover remains a favorite accessory in shelter magazine layouts. Their museum is in Chanute, Kansas and their website explains:

From 1917-1936, the Johnsons set up camp in some of the most remote areas of the world and provided an unmatched photographic record of the wildernesses of Kenya, the Congo, British North Borneo and the Solomon and New Hebrides Islands. Their equipment was the most advanced motion pictures apparatus of the day, some of it designed by Martin Johnson himself.

It seems a little sad to me that, in a nation often obsessed with designer labels, some of their best and most interesting backstories are lost to history, while multi-million dollar PR machines make sure we know the latest, not-so-great “stars” vying for our dollars. Lane Bryant, once a popular line of clothing for plus-size women, is named — mistakenly — for Lena Bryant, a Lithuanian immigrant whose name was misspelled by a bank official when she went for a loan. Widowed after the birth of her son by her second husband, David Bryant, a jeweler, in 1898 she sold her diamond earrings, bought a sewing machine and started making lingerie in Manhattan for pregnant women. I love her spirit and determination.

Nancy Talbot, who died August 30 at the age of 89, created a successful catalog and chain of red-doored stores selling a quality, Nantucket-y, classic look nonetheless affordable for many women.  At worst boring, at best classic, well-priced and durable, the clothes and accessories have a democratic spirit, bringing a clean, crisp style to a  mass market. There really were Brooks Brothers, the sons of the founder of that store, begun in 1818. As many know, the Lacoste crocodile on that 70-year-old sportswear line, named for a famous French tennis player, Rene Lacoste, honors his nickname, “le crocodile.”

And, in the town just south of where I live are the headquarters of Eileen Fisher, whose comfortable, simple clothing makes up an embarrassingly large part of my wardrobe, from my go-to washed silk LBD to a charcoal wool winter coat I look forward to wearing every year. There’s an inherent modesty to the clothing I like that reflects the ethos of the woman who designs it. I saw her recently, sitting at the table next to me at a restaurant beside her offices. I tried not stare, but it was so odd, and pleasant, to see the real person behind a brand so well-known and, by some, so well-loved.

This long weekend, I’m finishing up a terrific biography of Coco Chanel, a ferociously ambitious orphan whose name is still synonymous with Parisian chic, many decades later. She was clearly not a terribly nice woman, but what a survivor! A new film, Coco Before Chanel, starring Audrey Tautou, opens in theaters this month, focused on her early years in business.

I wear Prada and Gucci, but only their perfumes, and not because of the brand names, but because people I don’t even know very well happily sniff me, asking, “What is that wonderful scent?” If that’s as close as I get to wearing a Big Name Label, OK by me. It’s their stories I find most interesting anyway.