The Speckled Axe

I’m a perfectionist, a frustrated one. Somewhere between childhood and adolescence, I felt that if adequacy had a numeric value, it’d be greater than two and less than one; or something equally impossible.

More accurately, I felt as if that was the standard imposed on me. I realized that it wasn’t possible, and that there was no point in trying to reach it. Like I said, frustrated.

That goes a long way to explain, I think, why results from aptitude and intelligence tests showed that I should be getting stellar grades: and I wasn’t.

Autism Meets Perfectionism

Academics interested me, and I was paying attention. I just didn’t see a point in “good grades.” Besides, there was a whole universe full of things not being covered at any particular moment: including some inside the classroom.

I remember spending a sizable fraction of a class period, watching the shadow cast by a window frame travel across the floor.

That was an interesting confirmation that what I’d read recently about Earth’s rotation was essentially accurate.

Folks like me aren’t a good fit in most circles of society. Happily, my civilization had left terms like “soulless mass of flesh possessed by the devil” behind by then. Some psychologists were discussing Asperger’s paper on ‘autistic psychopaths.’

“Autistic psychopathy” is now part of the “autism spectrum disorder.” I think that sounds less scary. I also think it may be just as well that my brain’s — odd — wiring wasn’t spotted until recently.

I’ve described myself as “brilliant, talented, and on medication.” And that’s another topic. (March 19, 2017; October 21, 2016; July 31, 2016; Brian H. Gill’s Shop on

Happily, most of my elementary school teachers were very patient and understanding. One, not so much. I understand she left teaching and entered some sort of asylum after having me in her class.

My mostly-good experience with instructors lasted through high school and college: with a few exceptions. Very few.

Books with titles like ‘How To Be Rich And Famous Like Me’ sometimes say that perfectionism is a good thing.

Assuming that the authors have at least one foot in reality, I figure they’re thinking of having high standards. And that the standards are determined rationally, achievable, and measured in a quantifiable way.

I think Dr. Adrian Furnham is right. Being a perfectionist is good news and bad news.

The good news is that, properly managed, perfectionism can help someone be organized. That, plus effort, lets the perfectionist finish tasks on time and at or above expectations, and succeed in business or sports.

The bad news is that perfection, improperly managed, easily leads to the opposite of the ‘good news’ results.

There’s a religious angle to it, and I’ll get back to that.

The Speckled Axe Story

I think my parents had the same struggles with perfectionism that I experience.

Somewhere in late childhood, my father and I were in the garage.

We’d been doing something that turned our attention to a wall-mounted tool grinder.

It was a little like the one in that photo. Not as fancy, though, as I recall. That one’s a Luther Best Maide #51, on an old antique farm tools” page, along with wood & brass levels and a Federal Tool syrup pitcher.

“Old antique” seems redundant, but some antiques are older than others. Laurel Leaf Farm’s home page shows a much dressier selection of old stuff.

I like living in an era where old folks like me remember the days when downlinks needed dishes 18, 20 feet across. Kids these days grew up with fancy-schmancy little things you could hang a coat on. And that’s yet another topic.

Back to the garage. My dad could probably have sharpened his tools faster without my help, but I’m glad he didn’t.

I’d turn the crank, gears multiplied the handle’s revolutions, and I got an upper-body workout. Also time with my dad. I liked the sound it made, and the sparks that flew while sharpening tools. The grinder, that is. My dad was loud, but his noises were different.

Those were good times. Come to think of it, I’m loud. Anyway, I can’t remember the exact words my father used, but I remember the story he told.

A father and son were getting ready to chop wood. This was in the days when you sharpened an axe by turning a stone wheel by hand and holding the axe blade against it.

The son didn’t want to have a speckled axe when they were done. He wanted to get the axe perfectly sharpened and polished, with no rust left at all.

The father agreed, on the condition that the son turn the wheel. After a while the son got tired and said, “Dad, I think a speckled axe is okay.”

A Community of Perfect People?

Depending on who’s talking, perfectionism is a key to success, a psychological disorder waiting to happen, or “any of various doctrines holding that religious, moral, social, or political perfection is attainable.” (

Some perfectionists have set up their own communities, like John Humphrey Noyes’s Oneida Community.

The original Oneida Community started in 1848, east of Lenox, New York. Oneida merged with Lenox later that year, was un-merged in 1896, and incorporated as the City of Oneida in 1901. The town, that is.

The Oneida Community caught on: setting up branches in or near Wallingford, Connecticut; Newark, New Jersey; Putney and Cambridge, Vermont. The 1800s was boom times for uptopian communities in America, and that’s anther topic.

Boom times don’t last. By 1878 the one in Wallingford was the only one left. It got hit by a tornado that year. They dissolved in 1881 — the community, I mean, not the people. This wasn’t a Jonestown scenario, happily.

I’m not clear on details, but the — Oneidians??? — moved on, forming the Oneida Limited silverware company in 1881.

Folks in the Oneida Community thought our Lord had come back in 70 AD. It’s an interesting variation on millennial predictions.

They also believed that our Lord return made it possible for them to be free of sin and perfect in this world. They also thought they’d bring about Jesus’s millennial kingdom themselves. I’m sure they were sincere, and that they were mistaken.

The thirst for truth that’s written into each of us should lead us to God. Because I think seeking truth is vital, I support religious freedom — for everyone, not just folks who agree with me. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 21042107)

I’m also expected to recognize that other religious “…frequently ‘reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men’….” (Catechism, 2104, 21082109)

That doesn’t mean I think everybody’s right. I’ve talked about that, “love” not always being “approval,” an allegedly-illegal surname, and getting a grip, before. (April 2, 2017; November 21, 2016; October 28, 2016)

An End Times Prediction of Distinction

The Oneida Community’s 1st-century Second Coming was a bit unusual, but I still think Swedenborg gets top place for — originality, I suppose.

Swedenborg published “The Last Judgment and Babylon Destroyed…” in 1758, and it wasn’t just another End Times Bible Prophecy. Swedenborg announced that the Last Judgment had happened in 1757 — “in the spiritual world.”

High points for originality, zero for accuracy. And that’s nothing new. (December 11, 2016; August 7, 2016)

We’ve been on standby alert for two millennia, we’ve got plenty of work to do, and I’ve said that before. Basically, I take our Lord and Matthew 25:13, Matthew 24:36, 44, and Mark 13:3233 very seriously. Wannabe prophets, not so much. (November 27, 2016; October 2, 2016; August 7, 2016)

Surprise! It’s Saturday

There’s more to say about perfectionism, but I noticed that it’s late Saturday; not late Friday night. It’s been that sort of a week.

If I’m going to wrap this up, get some must-do tasks done, and get a plausible simulation of a good night’s sleep, what I was going to say must wait until next week.

Or maybe the week after. Next Sunday is Easter Sunday, and I’ve got a few things to say about what happened after our Lord was tortured, executed, and buried.

About being perfect, I don’t expect that in the here and now, but I’ll keep pushing toward that goal. Happily, being perfect isn’t required. “Working out my salvation” is. (Philippians 2:12)

I can’t work, or pray, my way into Heaven. I rely on our Lord. It’s faith and works. (Catechism, 430451, 10211022, 10381039, 1051, 18141816)

At the top of my ‘to do’ list is loving God and my neighbor. Also seeing everyone as my neighbor. No exceptions. (Matthew 22:3640, Mark 12:2831; Matthew 5:4344; Mark 12:2831; Luke 10:2530; Catechism, 1825)

That’s simple, not easy, and I’ve got dishes waiting for me in and near the sink.

Good night, and may God bless.

Vaguely related posts, and some that probably aren’t:

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A Different “Friday” Post

I had about half of the planned “Friday” post done, when I noticed a news item about pesticides in some American city water. That got my attention, so did what the scientists said. By the time I stopped writing ‘a few notes,’ I had much of a post written.

It wasn’t the one I had in mind, and the format was a bit unusual, but it was about science. Besides, there was no way I’d get the planned one done in time.

So this week’s ‘science’ post is “Pesticides in the Water.” I may get “Mars: Leaky Red Planet,” the one I’d originally been writing, done before Friday’s done. Or maybe not.

Now, I’ve got dishes to wash and a few other tasks. Then I really could use sleep.

Update, Friday, April 8, 2017.

“Mars: Leaky Red Planet” will have a different title when I post it. I’ll also be talking about the discovery of an atmosphere around an Earth-like planet. That’s a “first.”

Scientists in Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory’s MEarth Project detected an atmosphere around Gliese 1132 b, a (somewhat) Earth-like planet: a bit larger that Earth, almost certainly rocky like our home, but hotter than Venus.

It’s about 39 light-years away, in the general direction of Mu Velorum; but closer: about 39 light-years, very roughly a third of the way to Mu Velorum. Gliese 1132 b’s star, Gliese 1132, is a red dwarf; too dim to see from Earth. Unless you have a telescope.

Mu Velorum is another story. It’s a binary, the larger and brighter puts out about 107 times as much light as our star. The Mu Velorum B is smaller and fainter; and scientists aren’t sure about its statistics. Not yet, and that’s another topic. Topics.

The scientists studying Gliese 1132 b were using a telescope array at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory’s (CTIO) telescopes.

Those telescopes are about 80 kilometers east of of La Serena, Chile. The MEarth Project has another robotic observing site just south of Tucson, Arizona. Controls for both sets are in Cambridge, MA.

With sites in both of Earth’s hemispheres, they get a look at the entire sky.

I assume that’s where at least some of the scientists live and work, but they could be anywhere that has good Internet connectivity.

Like I said, “Mars: Leaky Red Planet” will have a different title. What we know, and what we don’t, about Gliese 1132 b’s atmosphere ties in with what I’ve written. I’ll have more to say about both ready — before next Friday, I hope.

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Pesticides in the Water

I live on Earth, so caring about what happens here makes sense. I’ve talked about enlightened self-interest, Yeats, Ehrlich, and getting a grip, before. Often, actually. (February 17, 2017; January 20, 2017; September 16, 2016; August 12, 2016)

A news item about scientists finding a particular sort of pesticide in America’s drinking water got my attention. So did what they said about it: which made sense.

Whether or not this becomes a hot news item, like the “Flint Water Crisis,” depends partly on how badly editors need something to angst over. My opinion.

What happened in Flint, Michigan, was real enough. There’s a pretty good Wikipedia page on it. Briefly, Flint’s drinking water was okay until the city started drawing from the Flint River instead of Lake Huron and the Detroit River.

I might see that as a problem, if I had my ancestral attitude about ‘offending the spirits.’ (December 16, 2016; July 22, 2016; July 15, 2016)

I’ll get back to that.

Folks running that territory should have put corrosion inhibitors in water from the Flint River. Or, better yet, made the river itself safer. I’ll get back to that, too.

Improperly treated water running through past-replacement-date pipes put lead in the city’s drinking water. From there, it got into the city’s people.

There’s nothing basically evil about lead, or anything else in the universe. It’s almost as easy to work as gold, and a great deal easier to find. We’ve been smelting it for something like nine millennia.

It’s not particularly pretty, so lead mining may have happened mostly because of our interest in silver, and that’s another topic.

Folks made beads from lead, Egyptians used it in cosmetics, the Xia dynasty’s royalty used it as a stimulant, for currency, and as a contraceptive.

Folks in what we call the Indus Valley civilization and Mesoamericans made amulets with the stuff, and folks in eastern and southern Africa made wire drawings with lead.

Lead: Tastes Good, is Bad For You

(From MM, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Parts of the Appian Way, Via Appia, from Rome to southern Italy, are still in use.)

Romans were top-notch engineers, not theorists. That, and a habit of building permanent structures that have been remarkably durable, made their roads famous.

We’d still be using more of the Roman transportation network, if Roman engineers had realized we’d be driving multi-ton vehicles on them at speeds seldom attained birds. And had a numbering system that made math easier.

About Romans and math, try dividing LXIV by VIII, and you’ll see what I mean.

Like I said, Romans were very capable engineers. They didn’t invent cement, a sort of artificial rock made by binding sand with lime or something similar. It’s arguably a better binding material than the bitumen Assyrians and Babylonians used.

Credit for inventing cement goes to Egyptians, Minoans, Macedonians, or someone else. Greeks, perhaps unaware of the irony, used solidified ash from Thera in making cement. I talked about Minoans and Plato last month. (March 12, 2017)

Roman engineers thought cement was practical, and started using cement in what we might call industrial quantities.

They thought the same about lead. They called it plumbum, and installed lead pipes throughout the Roman Empire, which is where we get our word plumbing.

Folks like Cato the Elder, Columella, and Pliny the Elder, noticed that using lead or lead-coated vessels while preparing sweeteners and other food or wine additives gave a pleasant taste.

They were right about that. The taste is certainly better than you’re likely to get from bronze or copper vessels.

Vitruvius noticed connections between lead and health problems. He recommended switching to clay- or masonry-lined tech for water transport and storage.

He was right, that was a good idea, and we kept using lead pipes anyway.

Lead pipes and lead-laced food didn’t help Rome’s public health, but I seriously doubt that it’s responsible for the Roman Empire’s collapse.

Fountains and Theoderic

(From Diliff, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

For one thing, folks in Rome went through water at a per capita rate close to today’s New Yorkers. Rome’s water came through a system of aqueducts, including 14 serving Rome. Roman Legions built them, slaves maintained them.

Slavery isn’t a good idea, but after two millennia we finally convinced quite a few folks that it’s not nice. Another few millennia, and we may get close to removing another societal ill; like maybe war as a conflict-resolution method.

I’ve talked about that before. (January 22, 2017; October 30, 2016; September 25, 2016)

Romans weren’t the first to make fountains. But like pretty near everything else, they built fountains on a massive scale.

Water flowed from assorted sources, through aqueducts, out from fountains and other outlets, and from there into Rome’s equally-massive sanitation system.

Some of it went through Romans on its way to the sea, but any given unit of water almost certainly didn’t spend enough time in any part of the system to absorb lead. Not in significant quantities.

Sextus Julius Frontinus said that Rome had 39 monumental fountains, 591 public basins, plus waterworks in the Imperial household, private villas, and — of course — baths. Frontinus said each major fountain connected to two different aqueducts, which allowed maintenance of the system.

Even Roman engineering requires maintenance, which is why much of their aqueduct system stopped being useful about 15 centuries back.

As we’ve done during and after each speed bump in our civilization’s long history, we survived and tried again. We started repairing and upgrading parts of the Roman aqueduct system about a millennium after Theoderic killed Odoacer. Colorful chap, Theoderic.

Back to Flint

Folks responsible for running Flint’s water supply knew, or should have known, why Vitruvius was right.

That photo is from a news item that got me started writing this. It’s about water, but doesn’t involve Flint.

Nicander had noticed health problems associated with lead a century or so before Vitruvius, Dioscorides did the same about a century after.

Fast-forward to the 1950s, when Herbert Needleman did the same thing as Nicander, Vitruvius, and Dioscorides. We’d developed better analytic tech and math by then.

Needleman eventually convinced the powers that be that phasing out lead from plumbing, paint, and other tech, was a good idea.

I gather that Clair Cameron Patterson’s interest in lead was more geochemical than biology-related.

But by then a remarkable number of folks had realized that eating, drinking, and inhaling lead was a really bad idea; so his work led to getting lead-free gasoline.

Once in our system, lead has a nasty way of binding with sulfhydryl groups in many enzymes. On average, only about 15% of inorganic lead gets absorbed this way, but that’s an average. In children and pregnant women, the percentage is higher.

Lead in teeth, hair, and bones apparently doesn’t do much harm, not immediately; but it plays havoc when it gets in neurons. Lead-laced neurons lose their myelin sheaths, don’t grow normally, and don’t produce enough neurotransmitters.

Studies with animals suggests that lead makes neurons die faster, and happily nobody has gotten the bright idea of testing that with humans. Not as far as I know, anyway.

Lead doesn’t stay in the body indefinitely. The half-life for blood is on the order of weeks, months for soft tissues, and years for bone.

The half-life for bone is probably 20 to 30 years. My guess is that we’d know more about that if we lived more than something like 120 to 130 years, max, and that’s yet another topic.

Like I said, lead in bones doesn’t seem to do much harm while it’s there. The problem is, lead goes into our blood and soft tissues after it leaves our bones. Once there, we’re back to serious health issues.

Again, those numbers are averages. Human children don’t have quite the same metabolism as adults, so lead affects — hurts — them more.

Basically, letting lead get into us is pretty much the opposite of good. We’ve known that for upwards of two millennia, and we’ve been learning more about why it’s so bad for us in the last few decades.


Folks running cities are generally around my age, maybe a little younger, so they probably didn’t learn about lead poisoning along with the alphabet and how to add.

But they presumably learned how to read, so staying ignorant about a major health issue doesn’t make sense for them.

Like I keep saying, health is precious. Staying healthy, and regaining health, is a good idea; within reason. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 22882290)

About folks who are supposed to be in charge, and the rest of us, rational respect for competent authority is a good idea. Blind obedience isn’t. (Catechism, 18971917, 19511960)

That’s not even close to thinking that some king, president, or anyone else in a top position, is above the law; much less has some divinely-ordained right to unthinking obedience. (Catechism, 1902, 1960, 2155, 22422243, 2267, 2313, 2414)

I’ve talked about the Thirty Year’s War, Louis XIV’s spin on his “divine right,” the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and getting a grip, before. (November 6, 2016 )

I assume that the bunch running Flint was compos mentis, and could either read or have somebody read aloud for them.

If that was the case, and since I think responsibilities of those in authority include not poisoning their people, I think there’s good reason for the stink being raised about the city’s water problem.

Politics and hysteria — those shouldn’t be synonyms — got involved, and that’s yet again another topic.

Brains and Stewardship

I’m a Christian and a Catholic; so I see the universe, Earth included, as a place of order and beauty. It’s being created and upheld by God, in a “state of journeying” toward an ultimate perfection. (Genesis 1:131; Catechism, 3132, 302, 341)

God gave humans brains, pretty good ones. We’re rational creatures, created in the image of God, “little less than a god;” given dominion over this world. That power, and our nature, comes with frightening responsibilities. (Genesis 1:2627, 2:7; Psalms 8:6; Catechism, 355373, 2402, 24152418, 2456)

We’re this world’s stewards, responsible for managing the place. Using this world’s resources wisely, showing concern for our neighbors and future generations, is part of our job. (Catechism, 339, 952, 24022405, 2415, 2456)

Forgetting that “little less than a God” isn’t “God” gets us in trouble, and that’s still another topic. (March 5, 2017; January 29, 2017)

Here’s what got me started —

Pesticides in America’s Water

(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Neonicotinoids have been found in samples from US water treatment plants”
(BBC News))

First study finds neonic pesticides in US drinking water
Matt McGrath, BBC News (April 5, 2017)

Small traces of the world’s most widely used insecticides have been detected in tap water for the first time.

“Samples taken by scientists in the US state of Iowa showed that levels of neonicotinoid chemicals remained constant despite treatment.

“However drinking water treated using a different method of filtration showed big reductions in neonic levels.

“Scientists say they cannot draw any conclusions relating to human health but argue that further study is needed….”

Getting pure, very pure, water is possible; but not easy. That’s why we’ve developed different standards for different uses.

For example; the U.S. National Committee for Clinical Laboratory Standards say that water for laboratory use with fewer than 50 parts per billion total Organic Carbon, 0.1 — tighten your belts, there’s more.

— fewer than 0.1 milligrams per kilogram total solids, under 0.05 parts per billion silica, and fewer than 10 per milliliter colony-forming units, is NCCLS Type I purified water. Standards for municipal tap water aren’t, I understand, quite as extreme.

Before you recoil in shock, horror, and/or dismay, and start demanding laboratory-grade purified water for everyone, keep reading.

Removing many impurities is a good idea for tap water. Removing all impurities might be possible; but there’s pretty good reason to think that it wouldn’t be good for us.

For starters, there’s good evidence that traces of several minerals helps keep our nervous system in good working order. This is not a bad thing.

Returning, briefly, to the Flint water SNAFU; I gather that one of the early responses to a memo about excess lead in the water was an official proclamation that there was no problem.

That strikes me as ineffective, to be charitable.

In fairness, the mayor got around to declaring a state of emergency a few months later. I have no idea how long it will take to replace dangerous pipes, and settle lawsuits that are starting to accumulate.

About who is to blame, I get the impression that at least a few city officials were grossly incompetent, corrupt, or otherwise unsuited to their position.

I’ll let the courts decide some of that, and hope that folks in Flint get a chance to make informed decisions during the next few election cycles.

Neonicotinoids and Getting a Grip

About the SNAFU in Flint; it’s my considered opinion that no living person is Adolph Hitler, the antichrist, or Nero. (November 8, 2016)

I think individuals are almost certainly guilty of incompetence, or worse.

But I don’t see a point in blaming politicians in general, the EPA, or the ‘other’ party. Taking a rational interest in local, regional, and national public issues is a good idea. Blind accusations or praise in the interest of ‘my’ side isn’t. (January 22, 2017)

About neonicotinoids and drinking water, I won’t be moving to the mountains and digging my own well. I’m reasonably confident that local water is safe: and because of family health issues, we already purify the already-purified tap water before drinking it.

Besides, like the scientists said, quoting Matt McGrath’s article, “further study is needed.” I think that’s a good idea. Blind panic, not so much.

Shell started developing neonicotinoids in the 1980s, Bayer in the 1990s. I do not think it’s part of a plot to overthrow Western civilization.

I do think it was a good idea, since neonicotinoids kill insects without hurting birds and mammals as organophosphate and carbamate insecticides.

Without hurting them as much, that is. All critters have pretty much the same sub-cellular machinery. I talked about that, mutant mice, and macaroni, last week. (March 31, 2017)

We’re learning that neonicotinoids may not be as safe as we’d hoped. We learned the same about PCBs. (February 17, 2017)

The lesson, I think, is that we don’t know everything: but we’re learning. The trick is using our knowledge rationally.

More, mostly getting a grip about environmental concerns and stewardship:

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Family Names

Update (April 21, 2017)

Not everyone is happy about this decision, understandably. I still think their choice of name is imprudent.

However, I also think that a government’s legitimate interests do not include a need to tell parents what name their children may have. Particularly if the government’s preference is based on the dictates of a long-dead monarch in another country.

Georgia parents win legal battle to name baby girl Allah
BBC News (April 21, 2017)

A couple in the US state of Georgia have won their legal battle to give their baby daughter the surname Allah.

“The state had refused to issue a birth certificate for ZalyKha Graceful Lorraina Allah on the grounds that neither parent has that last name….”

Officials in an American state think forcing a young couple to give their baby a name the officials prefer is a good idea. I don’t agree. At all.

I wouldn’t have picked the name the couple want. But my preferences don’t matter much in this case.

What is important, I think, is the idea that government control must end somewhere. And it’s certainly not needed to enforce an English king’s wishes.

And that gets me started on a less-than-usually-linear post. For me, that’s saying something.

The men — that’s another topic, for another day — who signed the United States Constitution ‘looked American’ and had ‘American’ names by some standards.

To this day, I suspect some Americans feel that being an American citizen requires having a name like George Washington, James Madison, or William Livingston.

I don’t, but as one of my ancestors said of another, “he doesn’t have family, he’s Irish.”

Some Americans have been non-English since before the 1776 rebellion, but ‘foreigners’ started pouring in during the 19th century. (January 22, 2017)

Since then, Americans with ‘foreign’ names like O’Toole and Di Vincenzo have been joined by folks like Ieoh Ming Pei and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.

I do not see that as a problem.

I also don’t have a problem with governments making rules about folks moving in, within reason. But the world’s more prosperous nations must let folks who can’t make ends meet back home come over. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2241)

The last I checked, America wasn’t in boom times like the years following WWII. But we’re still among the world’s wealthiest nations. I certainly don’t mind living in one of the places folks are trying to break into.

I also think treating folks who already are here with a degree of justice makes sense, no matter who our ancestors are. (Catechism, 2433)

I’ll grant that having “low types” in the family tree helps me embrace that idea. (September 20, 2016; August 26, 2016)

Much as I like living in America, I realize that my country isn’t perfect. That brings me to a couple who were told the name they picked for their baby wasn’t legal.

That got my attention. So did the name at issue: Allah. In a way, it’s none of my business. It’s not my child, not my state, and my kids already have “legal” names.

However, being involved in public life, supporting what’s good in my society, and addressing what’s not-so-good, is part of being a citizen. (Catechism, 1915, 2239)

‘My Name is Allah?’

My first thought was that the baby would be in for a great deal of teasing, at best, if the parents get their way.

What surprised me, after I read past the headline, was that it is the surname that’s at issue.

US parents sue to call baby girl Allah
(March 27, 2017)

A couple in the US state of Georgia who were banned from naming their daughter Allah are taking legal action.

“The state Department of Public Health has refused to issue the 22-month-old with a birth certificate.

“Elizabeth Handy and Bilal Walk say it is unacceptable that their child, ZalyKha Graceful Lorraina Allah, has officially been left nameless.

“But state officials say the child’s surname should either be Handy, Walk or a combination of the two, not Allah….”

The couple isn’t married. BBC News didn’t say whether that’s by choice, or whether they couldn’t get a marriage certificate, either.

Either way, they have different last names: hence the state’s insisting that they choose Handy, Walk, or some combination. I’ll get back to the matter of marriage and family.

I still think “Allah” is an imprudent choice. But I can’t fault one of their reasons. Bilal Walk, the baby’s father, told a newspaper that the name was chosen because it’s “noble.”

I can’t argue with that. Not reasonably. Not if I’m going to take my own beliefs seriously.

The couple are probably Muslims, but that’s a guess on my part. If so, they follow one of the Abrahamic religions. I’ve talked about that before. (November 29, 2016)

Seeking truth is expected of everyone, which is why I support religious freedom — for everyone, not just folks who agree with me. (Catechism, 21042107)

It’s not an absolute right, but I’m expected to recognize that other religious “…frequently ‘reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men,’…” (Catechism, 2104, 21082109)

Choosing “Allah” as a surname? As I said, I think it’s imprudent, but I won’t argue against the father’s stated reason.

And the state officials apparently didn’t have the child’s welfare in mind, which I think might be a legitimate reason. Their problem seems to be that they think everybody should have surnames that follow rules they’re used to.

What they think our Lord’s surname should be, I don’t know. As far as I know, Mary and Joseph didn’t have surnames; not the “American” sort.

I’ve seen our Lord referred to as “Jesus;” “Jesus the Nazarene;” “Jesus, son of Mary;” and “Jesus, son of Joseph;” but not “Jesus Josephson.” I think Anglo-American naming conventions work, and know that they’re just one of many possibilities.

Names, Legal and Regrettable

I think names are important, and more than labels that are more personalized than ‘hey, you.’

Some countries are run by folks who think names are so important that they tell parents which names are legal, and which aren’t. A few say the name must be written in a particular script.

I gather that the idea in some cases is to protect kids from “being given an offensive or embarrassing name,” as a Wikipedia page put it. Fair enough.

So, I think, are laws which limit names to those which can be expressed in a machine-readable language. That’s not an issue in English. Our alphabet of just over two dozen characters easily converts to ASCII and machine-friendly codes.

China’s language, with more than 70,000 characters, is another matter. Some do have code equivalents, most don’t.

Demanding that names be selected from a pre-approved list, like Denmark’s and Hungary’s, seems unreasonable; particularly if the motive is clinging to a national culture.

I can sympathize with someone who doesn’t like seeing the old customs fade.

But if folks must be forced to follow “their” culture’s preferences, and new customs are harmless, I think the reasonable approach is admitting that the past is in the past, and will stay there.

Then there’s there’s an old joke about the man who told a judge he wanted his name changed. The judge asked why. You know the rest, but I’ll tell it anyway.

‘My name is Sam Stinks.’ ‘The court understands why you want a different name. What name do you prefer?’ ‘Fred.’

A situation Chris Haslam ran across in Zambia isn’t so funny:

“…His name is Mulangani. It’s a Nguni word meaning ‘punish me’. Or ‘he who must be punished’, if you want to get formal. Who, I asked my driver Mavuto, would give their child such a horrible name?

“‘Maybe his grandfather, maybe the chief,’ he shrugged, explaining that across Zambia and neighbouring Zimbabwe, it is common for parents, especially in rural areas, to invite community elders to choose the name of a newborn.

“‘Sometimes the chief wants to punish the family,’ says Mavuto. ‘Or he may think this new child is too much for the family to bear.’…

“…’In African culture, there is a trend of naming children according to the circumstances surrounding their birth,’ says Clare Mulkenga-Chilambo, a care worker at SOS Children’s Villages in Zambia. ‘It’s good for those born at bright and merry moments but unfortunate for the others.’…”
(Magazine, BBC News (March 26, 2017))

Other regrettable names Chris Haslam mentioned were Chilumba – “my brother’s grave”, Balaudye – “I will be eaten”, Soca – “bad luck” and Chakufwa – “it is dead”. On a happier note, some kids had names like Daliso, “blessings” and Chikondi, “love”.

My culture has similar naming conventions. I don’t know how often Faith, Hope, or Charity are given to baby girls, or “Victor” to boys; but it’s been done.

My guess is that all names meant something, when they were new. Many in my culture’s heritage are now so old that most folks have since forgotten their meaning — along with the original language.

I’ve talked about continuity, change, and culture, before. (July 24, 2016)

Folks can and do change their names as adults, because their marital status changed, they want a name that’s easier to spell or pronounce, or for other reason. In the United States, that’s covered by state laws.

A Saint Brian: Sort of

Upwards of 12,000,000 folks entered the United States through a processing station at Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay, between 1892 and 1954.

Some newcomers kept their names, others decided that a new name would be more suitable in a new country.

Some had their names changed by immigration officials who couldn’t spell, pronounce, or understand, the ‘foreign’ sounds.

I like to think that we’ve learned a bit since the days of Ellis Island specials. I think we have much left to learn.

My father’s family name, Gill, came over from the British Isles quite a long time ago. My mother’s family are more recent arrivals. My — grandmother, I think — was an infant when that part of the family left Norway.

They went to the ‘wrong’ church, so she couldn’t get a birth certificate. That complicated matters, but the family sorted it out and headed for central North America.

We remembered, however, how precious religious freedom is; and why state-sponsored churches aren’t nearly as nifty as they may sound.

My mother’s father and his family kept their surname, Hovde. So did my mother, after marriage, and to the end she was “Dorothy Hovde Gill,” not “Dorothy Marie Gill.”

The “H.” in my name is “Hovde.” The nod to my father’s heritage is my given name, Brian. It’s also my baptismal name, which may be a bit unusual for a Catholic.

We’re generally named after a Saint or a Christian mystery or virtue; and parents shouldn’t give a name that’s “foreign to Christian sentiment.” (Catechism, 21562159; Code of Canon Law 855)

That last makes sense, I think. Who’d want to be named something like “Gluttony Smith?”

It’s no surprise that my baptismal name doesn’t follow Catholic naming conventions. I was baptized in my mother’s church, one of the smaller Protestant denominations; which has since merged with another mainstream group.

There has been a “Saint Brian.” sort of, since 1970. That’s when Edmund Arrowsmith was canonized. He was baptized “Brian,” but used “Edmond,” was convicted of being a Catholic priest, and executed on August 28, 1628.

The charge was true, and another reason I think religious freedom is important.

Daruma and Me

Another branch of my mother’s kin decided that their family name, Pjaaka, wasn’t suitable for their new homeland. They changed it to something a great deal more anonymously “American.”

I understand their reasons, but feel the loss of that bit of our heritage. Being practical is a family value, however, so I think they most likely made a prudent choice.

I’m not sure what I would do, if I had to move my family to a country where “Brian Gill” would sound “foreign.”

My parents named me after Brian Boru, high king of Ireland back when folks from near my mother’s ancestral homeland were muscling in on Charles the Simple’s territory.

Charles graciously gave them permission to stay on the land they’d picked, on condition that they defend it from other invaders. I think that was a sensible move. With a bunch of Vikings in residence, who’d be crazy enough to even try invading?

Normans moved in on England next, the place hasn’t been the same since, and that’s yet another topic.

The Irish/Breton given name Brian most likely comes from an Old Celtic word meaning “noble” or “high.” That’s plausible, since the element bre means “hill.”

Interestingly, “Hovde” probably means about the same thing. Depending on who you listen to, the name meant a descendant of a headman or chief, or maybe “hill.” The latter seems more likely.

Origins of my father’s surname are lost. One of the more reasonable of our speculations is that it’s from gill, or ghyll, a ravine or narrow valley.

The word gully is supposed to come from French goule, meaning throat; but I suspect it caught on because English-speaking folks already knew about gills.

Let’s say that my family and I had to move to Japan.

My guess is that folks there would eventually get used to my “Brian Gill” moniker, but pronouncing it the way I do might be a challenge. If nothing else, there’s a tripthong in “Brian.” Not all languages use the marvelous variety of vowels mine does.

I might consider taking a new name. The first one I thought of was Daruma, the Japanese version of Bodhidharma, Bìyǎnhú, “The Blue-Eyed Barbarian.”

Chinese traditions say he brought Chan Buddhism to China, and began the physical training of the monks of Shaolin Monastery that led to Shaolin Kung Fu. He’s shown as an ill-tempered, profusely-bearded, wide-eyed non-Chinese person in Buddhist art.

That sounds a lot like me, and his picture there even looks a little like me — a decade or so back, and from a far-eastern viewpoint. My beard is longer and grayer now.

Daruma lived around the time Britons fought West Saxons at the Battle of Badon.

Arthur may have been involved in that battle: the real Arthur, not the post-Renaissance retreads we’re familiar with. Those are generally based, more or less, on Geoffry of Monmouth’s imaginative retelling of Welsh tales, and that’s yet again another topic.

I have great respect for Daruma, Chan Buddhism, and Zen. But I’m a Christian and Catholic, enjoy reading passages from Thomas Aquinas, and have a very different view of reality. I looked at other possible names for hypothetical adopton.

“Gill,” in the sense of a ghyll or gully, is easy enough. I understand that it comes out as Gari in Japanese. Tani or Keikoku might be better choices: “Valley” or “Ravine,” more or less. I’d have to do more research to be anywhere near confident about that.

If I assume that “Brian” means “hill,” that’d be Oka, which seems to be an element in names like Hirokatsu and Hirokazu. Hideyoshi’s meaning might be closer to my parent’s intent, and I’m drifting off-topic.

Where was I? America’s Constitution, names, Arthurian legends, Kung Fu. Right. I was talking about a young couple, their baby girl, and a state’s efforts to dictate what the kid’s name should be.

‘Because Henry VIII Said So?!’

Thinking that marriage and family are important mean that I’m a Catholic who understands our faith: not someone who things everyone should live as if it’s still 1950’s suburban America. (Catechism, 16011658)

The fictional Cleavers and Andersons weren’t bad role models, but things are different now.

I think it’d be nice if that young couple got married. But they’ve apparently been together long enough for their second kid to be 22 months old.

By contemporary American standards, that’s pretty good family stability.

If I thought having a surname that’s the same as one of the parents was a law etched into the foundations of the universe — well, I know that’s not so. Many but not all cultures have family names that remain stable over many generations. Some don’t, and get along fine.

Most folks in Japan, for example, got along without family names until — I think it was the Meiji Restoration.

Surnames have become virtually universal in Europe over the last few centuries. Many developed from and replaced bynames or epithets, like “the simple,” “the smith,” or “the bald.” That may explain why there are so many Smiths these days. it was a worthy profession.

I understand that we have Henry VIII to thank for English-speaking cultures traditionally insisting that children be given the father’s family name.

It’s not a bad idea, that’s what my wife and I did; but ‘because Henry VIII said so’ doesn’t strike me as sufficient reason to keep the custom.

Families are the basic unit of society. Larger units, including governments, have a legitimate interest in helping families do our work. But the big outfits also have an obligation to keep their meddling fingers out of family life unless it’s actually necessary. The Church expresses that idea more politely. (Catechism, 1883, 22072213)

Ephesians 6:13 says that honoring our fathers and mothers is a good idea. Giving kids the same surname as their father is a nice way to do that, but it’s not the only way.

I am convinced that following surname conventions no more than a few centuries old is not vital to family stability.

I still think “Allah” isn’t the most prudent choice for a surname in today’s America. But if I expect others to respect my family and my faith, I can’t reasonably think that efforts to shove official preferences down the throats of unwilling subjects is a good idea.

That includes religious freedom. I became a Catholic because I am convinced that it is a good idea, and that it would be a good idea for everyone. But, like I said earlier: religious freedom is vital. “Free to agree with me” is not “free.”

There’s more to say about that, and I probably will: but not today. (Catechism, 839845; Nostra aetate,” Bl. Paul VI (October 28, 1965))

I will, however, repeat a quote I used last year. (November 29, 2016)

“…the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind….”
(“Lumen Gentium,” Bl. Paul VI (November 21, 1964))

More of my take on living as if other folks matter:

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