last week i had a house guest – my friend jennifer left her chihuahua, waffle, with me while she headed south because of a family emergency.
on thursday night, i left waffle in charge of things at my apartment and met up with friends for our weekly cards against humanity game. i was telling andrea, the executive director of heartland (our local humane society), about some of my experiences out walking with waffle. lots of folks can’t pass up petting her, which usually meant that they chatted with me for a bit. when i was asked where her name came from, i improvised this story, and stuck with it – she was left outside the humane society in a cardboard box, and there was a frozen waffle (for food?) inside the box with her. i told andrea that i was jealous of the heartland staff and volunteers who get to name the animals that pass through the shelter.
i was only half-joking when i said that i wanted to make a donation to the shelter in exchange for the right to name the next X animals that came into the shelter. i’d probably do battlestar galactica characters or ELO songs.
later that night i was telling my friend james about my idea, and we got into a conversation about naming things. it seems to me that we don’t get to name things very often, so i’ve tried to be clever about my pets’ names so that i’m not wasting those opportunities. james hadn’t thought about that before, but he could see my point.
here’s some background:
when i was a kid, we brought home two chickens, and my parents let me name them. the first one out of the bag i named lucy, after lucille ball. i was still pretty upset that my parents wouldn’t hire her as my babysitter, so having her in chicken form was the next best thing. the other chicken in the bag was making a ton of noise, so i named her cluck. cluck and lucy.
moving out of the humboldt state university dorms and into a rental house with friends afforded lots of opportunities for naming pets. hethir brought home a kitten we named vegas-bagheera. our next cat, a grumpy manx we got from the humboldt county humane society, we named king louie, in keeping with the jungle book theme and because i love louis prima (the voice of king louie in the movie). then my friend ashley brought us two tiny abandoned kittens who we bottle-fed and named paris munchkin (middle names double your naming opportunities) and disco inferno. the ladies at our vet were always glad when disco needed shots.
our four cats, armed with the confidence that comes from well-selected names, ruled our neighborhood and cruised around about a 4-block area. our neighbor’s cat, with a forgettable name, used to follow our cats around, usually about ten feet behind the cat gang. they barely tolerated her.
when that forgotten cat had kittens a year or two later, i took one. he was arguably my best-named pet. paul shaffer. known as shaffer to we who loved him, he was a fantastic cat. my dad, who knows a good cat when he sees one, once tried to win him from me in a game of tripoley. shaffer stuck around for 6 or 7 years, as i made the transition from college student to elementary school teacher. when he never came back from one of his frequent multi-night adventures, i was crushed. i still miss that cat.
during the last term of my BA, i took an intro to astronomy class. the only problem was that it was taught by a professor who kept forgetting that we were undergraduates taking a required lower-division class, not astronomy grad students. I just barely passed the class, which meant that i could graduate. to celebrate, i got myself a puppy and named her rigel after the brightest star in the constellation orion.
i started teaching 4th grade in loleta, and i passed the humboldt county humane society on my drive to and from from work. i stopped in every once in a while, hoping to find a young dog to be rigel’s sidekick. once there was an awesome dog i was really drawn to. he had been turned in as a stray and had been living by wandering through neighborhoods eating out of garbage cans. he was a sweet guy. the problem was that i couldn’t think of a good name for him. i got in my car and headed towards home. a few minutes later the perfect name for him came to me – elvis costello. i turned around and went back to the humane society and brought elvis home with me. he turned out to be a fantastic dog.
one of my 4th grade students, blake, gave me an orange tabby kitten that i named harvey, and here’s why: my parents have always called me pooka, which means a large imaginary animal, like harvey in the jimmy stewart movie. stewart died just before i got the kitten, so it seemed like a good time for an homage.
my fourth grade class got a pet rat. we’d read roald dahl’s “the BFG” (which stands for big friendly giant). the class decided to name the rat LFR (little friendly rat). one of my students kept telling his military mom about LFR. after many weeks, his mom saw the name written on paper. all that time she thought that he was saying the arabic word for rat, which is something very similar. we thought that it was a good sign.
my foster daughter, karla, wanted a pet rat for her birthday. over the years i had told her about how all of my pets had been named, and shared with her my belief that because naming opportunities don’t come around very often you should use them well. but she still wanted to name her brown rat “brownie.” come on. she was a voracious reader and i tried talking her into using a name from a book she loved – so many clever names out there. but she stuck with brownie.
when my grandma betty moved to corvallis from las vegas, she really wanted a black pug. karla and i took her to see some senior dogs who were available for adoption. we walked through the door and sitting there was an adorable black pug, his tongue hanging out of his mouth. now betty’s a crier, and she burst into hysterical sobbing when she saw this dog waiting there for her. karla wisely took off to go look at something in the store, leaving me to try to convince the shelter volunteers that betty wasn’t crazy. we were able to calm her down enough to start the adoption process. on the drive back to betty’s place, she said that she was going to name him “blackie.” ack. for karla’s sake i did some modeling of how to choose a good name. i suggested that betty pick a name that would be an homage to her beloved las vegas. her favorite entertainer, as she calls them, was a guy named earl turner. so i said, “how about turner?” she went for it. crisis averted.
turner passed away a few months ago. he was an old dog and he went quickly while my grandma was out of town. it was all for the best. the woman who ran the place where he was boarded had an adult siamese cat who needed a home, and she offered her to betty. what betty missed about turner was that he spent hours sitting on her lap while she knitted and watched tv. what she didn’t miss was having to take him out on walks (she doesn’t have a fenced yard). so a cat was a perfect pet for her. she decided to name the cat “sweetie” (some people never learn). sweetie is pretty shy, and when she got to betty’s house she went right for the space behind the couch, and even months later she still spends most of her time there. i would too if my name was sweetie.
when we were chatting about names, james told me that his friend nell has done graduate-level research into cultural naming practices. nell is fun to have at parties because she always has interesting things to talk about. what with people having names and all.
i have never gotten to name a child, and i never will. my only regret about that is that i have a great baby name – declan. that’s elvis costello’s real first name. i think it works for a boy or a girl. “dex” would be a cool nickname. if any of you come upon a baby needing a name, feel free to use that.
at the moment, i am happily pet-less. should i ever own another pet, i have a few cool potential pet names. i love big cats, and i’d name mine fezzik after andre the giant’s character in “the princess bride.” i would like to have a pet cow – i would call her henrietta, the name of the street i grew up on. i’d name two corgis woodrow call and augustus mccrae from “lonesome dove.”
the only problem i have with this shelter animals naming rights idea is that it needs of a good name. if you come up with one, you can have the spot in line behind me. i have dibs on the first guest namer gig.